Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Solvang-- Not Just a Fake Danish Town

Solvang is a little town about an hour north of Santa Barbara off of Highway 254 or 101. It was founded in 1911 by Danish settlers, but looked like a normal American community until someone in the late 1940s thought it would make a great tourist trap! So the family friendly Danish village look was created. Windmills were constructed, brick towers mirroring the architecture of Aalborg in Denmark were erected, and bakeries rose up like yeast in this small nook of the Santa Ynez Valley. The park in the center features Hans Christian Anderson’s giant head stoically looking into the distance, and a statue of The Little Mermaid adorns the exterior of the overpriced clothing store, “Bellagio.” If you look carefully, you can find wooden storks attached to faux nests in the fake thatch of some of the buildings.

Ok, that paints a very unflattering picture. But for all the Danish-wannabe stylings, Solvang is still a destination worthy of attention, and has some authentic experiences to offer to those who are willing to find them. Let’s begin with the food.

The first Danish food you will encounter are the aebleskivers—round pancakes covered with raspberry jam and powdered sugar that are very very tasty. I’ve found that an aebleskiver pan with mix and jam make welcomed gifts for chefs and foodie friends (and my boyfriend’s mother).

I’m going to skip past the pastries you know about—pettifores are deliciously dainty, éclairs are French, but let’s not hold that against them, and avoid the chocolate cakes. But have you heard of a Kringle? Probably not. This is the real Danish deal—only to be found in Scandinavia, in some parts of the midwest, and in Solvang. It looks like a giant pastry pretzel with almond slices and sugar coating its flaky exterior and almond paste in the center. I’ve heard that Danish people can’t start the day without kringle and coffee—I have no idea if that’s true, but it sounds good. I do know that the royal family of Denmark made a special trip to Solvang while touring the country and complimented the Kringle there—I know this because the stores took pictures! Olsen's Bakery is where I get my kringle fix.

The bakeries are pretty much where authenticity ends. The rest of Solvang is a mix of restaurants, touristy shops, and recently, wine bars and wine tasting stores. The movie Sideways brought attention to the wine region of Santa Ynez, and the flabby waitresses of Buellton (sorry to burst your bubbles, but the waitresses of Buellton are perfectly trim as a general rule), with the end result that the entire area—Buellton, Solvang, and Santa Ynez—have reorganized their economies to promote local wineries. More on that in another post.

When you have had enough of pastries, the best place for lunch is a local secret called “Paninos.” They do not serve Paninis, as one might expect, but they do have incredibly good gourmet sandwiches and salads, like their Curried Chicken Salad Sandwich with dried cranberries, pinenuts, apple, curry mayo and honeymustard (my favorite). I also recommend the English Stilton, Asian Pear and Walnut salad with balsamic vinaigrette—and I don’t even like stilton. You can find Paninos on the corner of a small cluster of stores attached to the Hans Christian Anderson Park (the one with the head in it) near The Mandarin Touch—the local Chinese food restaurant. If you’re not in the mood for sandwiches and salads, I recommend Café Angelica for a romantic dinner—their wine list offers many local selections, and the butternut squash ravioli with the sage-butter sauce is excellent. For breakfast, play Dodge the Fly at Paula’s Pancake House—which despite the pesky bugs, has very good omelets, waffles and Danish pancakes. These places are the best restaurants in Solvang—which unfortunately doesn’t offer much cuisine of note, other than the pastries. Just outside of Solvang is The Alisal, which has a very nice restaurant (with great tortilla soup) that overlooks their golf course.

Now that you know where to eat—let me tell you where to shop. Avoid the cutesy Christmas store on the main drag—they haven’t changed their inventory in ten years at least. If you want adorable gifty items, head to Ace Hardware. They have a very sharp buyer who ferrets out unique finds for the garden, home and holidays. I especially appreciate their assortment of non-generic placemats (though even they can’t find non-generic tablecloths—I know, because I asked).

Eidelweiss is cute-overload. I’m not suggesting you avoid it, but be forewarned that there are lace doilies and dolls everywhere. This store is the place to be, if you like that sort of thing. They also have quite a bit of silver and sparkly jewelry; not super high end, but decent quality for something pretty.

Check out The Book Loft, which is basically a small town book shop with a small town coffee shop that caters to tourists—BUT—upstairs is a good selection of decently priced used and antique books, as well as a “Hans Christian Anderson Museum.” Also, if you’re looking for a roomy, well kept bathroom, The Book Loft is a safe bet. Fun Fact: Jackie Chan came into the Book Loft on an off day from filming Rush Hour Three. I think the staff must keep a camera on hand for celebrity sightings—which they should, because there are a lot of celebs who come through, film, or live in the Valley.

I’ve saved my personal favorite store for last: The Mystic Merchant. The only store of its kind in the heavily Presbyterian Solvang, The Mystic Merchant specializes in spiritual, magical, and geological accessories and decorations. You can find incense from India, locally picked white sage, statues of Ganesh and Bast, giant mounds of rose quartz, a table base of solid amethyst, and two very fluffy kitties named Earnest and Lightning Bug (aka. “Buglet)—who are not for sale. The store has psychics, palm and tarot readers, and the aura lady who takes a picture of your aura there on different days of the week, but the highlight for me is the owner, Joelle, who creates the welcoming ambience that keeps locals coming back. Their selection of semi-precious gemstone jewelry is unsurpassed in the area, much of it made by local artisans, and the rest is hand- picked for unique qualities.

Things to do in Solvang OTHER than shop or eat—this is a short list:

  1. Go on a tour of Solvang in a replica of a 1915 street car lead by two giant Belgian Draft horses who patiently clomp around Solvang during most weekends
  2. Rent a “surrey-cycle” to terrorize the local motorists.
  3. Run out into the middle of the street, confident in the knowledge that no one will hit you. Locals are extremely, if grudgingly, considerate—even if they do think tourists share a bizarre death wish to be roadkill.
  4. Put soap in the Little Mermaid Fountain (no, not really. This job is under the jurisdiction of the local high school seniors, but you can take pictures of the suds they’ve created any time).
  5. Take a LOT of pictures.
  6. Drunkenly harass shop people after your 5th wine tasting (if you bother people before then, you will be considered a light-weight).
  7. Visit the Santa Ynez Mission and see the row of unusually gory crosses.


Thursday, November 8, 2007

Testing out pictures, nevermind this

Voluntourism—Who Really Benefits?

Voluntourists go abroad to change lives, but the lives they end up changing are usually (sometimes only) their own.

Really, how can anyone spend a few weeks to a few months in a developing country with the expectation that their transient volunteering will make a lasting impact? The experience might make the volunteer feel very good about his or herself, but critics (and there are surprisingly few) question whether these volunteers are actually adding something positive to the communities they hope to serve. Many don’t stick around long enough to form relationships with the locals, most don’t come with skills that would actually prove useful to the project (no, good intentions are not skills), and some arrive with preconceived notions about what the native people ought to be doing, and feel very entitled to take over. These factors have lead some to call voluntourism “the new colonialism.” After all, we’re “giving” them our technology and know-how to help them… kinda like the English did in India all those years ago… right? The volunteer tourism market is geared towards profit over the needs of the communities, and since this form of travel is so new, there are few regulations. However, an organization called Tourism Concern is developing a code of ethical conduct for the international volunteering sector.

On the bright side—one positive result of voluntourism is that it can improve the negative perceptions of America abroad. Additionally, volunteers go to places largely passed over by the major travel magazines and tour companies, which can help the local economy.

One point however is clear across the board—traveling to other countries in a volunteer capacity really can change *your* life, if not the lives of those you expect to be helping. Even professional volunteers who object to “voluntourism” on the grounds that it attracts fare-weather do gooders out to enhance their resumes, those who have no useful skills, and those who feel entitled to impose their own ideas of what the native people need, admit that they themselves started out in much the same way. They traveled to a country with hopes of making a lasting positive impact, but the most prominent lasting impact was in their own lives. Travel tourism companies will tell you about how many people choose to return year after year, and there is a smaller portion of people whose experiences volunteering have lead them to a lifetime devoted to their host countries.

On the Dark Side-- All the above is based on the assumption that the volunteer tourism company is legit. But gap-year Brits are coming across numerous scams—“organizations” perfectly willing to take thousands of dollars for the promise of a meaningful experience helping in a foreign/developing country. One fellow, expecting to teach English in India, was driven from the airport to a nearby school where his guide approached the teacher saying the equivalent of “hey, need another English teacher?”, and the school had no idea they were coming. In Mexico, a young woman spent her gap year with little work to do in the community and spent six months inputting data into spreadsheets—for which she paid $4000.

Websites such as helps volunteers to critically examine schemes. Aspiring philanthropists need to check what training they will receive, whether local people are involved with running the project, and what proportion of their fees actually go to the communities they are helping. Also inquire about the project’s plans to deliver lasting and sustainable benefits.

Links to other Voluntourism Articles (that are probably far more wholeheartedly in favor of it):

Voluntourism Organizations. Family Voluntourism. Skilled Volunteer Vacations. Expert Voluntourism (for those of you who know what you're doing). School Credit for Traveling. Mercy Ships.

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