Travel north 140 miles out of Los Angeles, head northeast past the Santa Barbara Beach cities, then at just about the center of wine country and snuggled in the Santa Ynez Mountains you'll find the quaint little Danish town of Solvang, California. Solvang is known for its traditional Danish-style windmills, mom-and-pop boutique shops, wine tasting galleries, and fruit-stuffed pastries.

I packed up the cargo area of a 2010 GMC Terrain SLE with luggage for two-and-a-half people. There was more than enough room for two overnight bags, two backpacks, and a medium-size cooler for my friend, my two-year-old nephew, and me. Our Terrain was equipped with a dual rear-seat DVD entertainment system to keep the little one entertained while in his child safety seat for the three hours of road travel we had ahead of us. For the adults in front, our Terrain featured AM/FM/XM stereo, CD player with MP3/WMA playback capability, 7-inch touch-screen Color Interface Display, navigation, 40 GB hard drive, USB port, and 8-speaker Pioneer sound system to rock out to. And even though we never got to use them in the 90-plus-degree weather in August, the cloth front seats came with seat heaters, a feature only available with the Convenience Package.

We took the 101 Freeway north out of L.A. late in the morning and hit very little traffic along the coastal route. The 182-horsepower, 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine and soft suspension allowed us to sail on the highway with comfort and ease. Fallowing the directions given by the navigation, we cut across the Santa Ynez Mountains on San Marcos Pass Road (Highway 154). The mighty four-cylinder engine did a nice job hauling the hefty front-drive 'ute around the twisty two-lane road. The six-speed automatic transmission shifted and held gears on the inclines, causing little to no lag, and I never needed to shift the Hydra-Matic manually.

We made our first scenic stop off San Marcos Pass Road (for those who are interested, it's located at 34.530664, -119.842051). This spot is a breathtaking overlook of the Santa Ynez River Basin, San Rafael Mountains, and Lake Cachuma reservoir. The reservoir is the primary source of water for the Santa Barbara-Goleta area and the pasture fields have been used for cattle ranching since the early 1800s. Further down San Marcos Pass Road, we stopped at the Bradbury Dam Observation Point (at 34.5805446, -119.978753), to get a look back at where we had just driven. The dam was built in the 1950s and hosts the water that comes from the Santa Ynez River. This spot was a little bit off the beaten path, but I am always up for a drive in the dirt. The GMC's nav system was not as happy about it, though, quickly prompting us to get back on the road. The soft rocking of the GMC's suspension on the mountain road lulled my nephew into a quick nap. We continued northwest for 14 miles and then turned left at Armour Ranch Road/CA-246, which led us to the center of Solvang.

There are several Danish-style cottages, historic bed-and-breakfasts, and hotels throughout the tiny town of Solvang. For our time there, we chose to stay at the Hadsten House Inn on the eastern edge of Mission Drive (aka Highway 246). The exterior of the Inn featured modest hints of Danish architecture that paid homage to the local flair and wineries, and happened to be within walking distance from Copenhagen Drive, the town's central hub for tourism. The room's interior featured a rich sense of French modern design, dark hardwood floors, and a cozy fireplace that made the room nice and toasty for the night.


The next day, we came up with a general plan for the trip. With all the places to go and things to do in the area, we decided to base most of our activities on kid-friendly hot spots. And there was nothing more kid-friendly than yummy Danish pancakes topped with fresh fruit and whipped cream from the famous Paula's Pancake House. Okay, it's very adult-friendly too--you won't regret trying the breakfast there, and your pocketbook will thank you as well. We began both mornings at Paula's to start the day right, and with three pages of tasty breakfast platters and combos to choose from, we all tried something new each day before heading out.


After stuffing our tummies at Paula's, we took a short 2-mile drive to the Apple Lane Farms to pick some apples. These local apple orchards are one of many beautiful locations that allow you to get a hands-on experience as you harvest your own apples. At this time of year, the Gala apple season was just about to end and Golden and Red Delicious apples were just about ready for the September harvest. We walked around the Gala trees, picked a few apples with my nephew, and then paid for them at the cute little red stand at the mouth of the farm. Located not far from the apple orchards was the Morrell Nut & Berry Farm where we got our hands dirty picking fresh raspberries and blackberries. All this fresh-picked fruit would make for a healthy chopped orchard salad with raspberry vinaigrette once we got back home.


We headed over to the Quicksilver Miniature Horse Ranch, which was within walking distance from the berry farms. We parked the Terrain under the tall trees that lined the entrance right next 4-foot fence that surrounded the green pastures. Then we opened the rear hatch to have a tailgate picnic. We watch the horses graze on fresh grass as we grazed on homemade sandwiches and fresh-picked fruit. The Quicksilver Ranch has been breeding horses less than 34 inches tall since 1983. The ranch isn't a petting zoo, nor does it offer any cart rides pulled by its fleet of tiny horses. The ranch does let you walk around its breeding grounds to get an up-close and personal view of the miniature residents. We got to watch a caretaker bathe two horses in a shower within the main barn and were told that the months of April and May are to best time of year to visit the ranch. They're expecting some 30 new foals next year. We were also told our GMC was a great-looking 'ute by one of the caretakers. It should've come as no surprise that the miniature-horse breeders would like GMC's "miniature" SUV.


After we said our goodbyes to the miniature horses, we intentionally picked a random road to drive, just to see the local neighborhood and countryside. We took a detour onto Sagunto Street, which led us to a delightful old west town with shops and museums. And, as luck would have it, one of the few museums in the area happened to house a collection of over 35 horse-drawn vehicles that date back to be early 1800s. Although we didn't plan to visit this museum on our trip, we had to stop to check it out before heading back to our hotel for some needed R&R by the pool.

Later that evening, we headed west on the 246 to Buellton (a couple of miles out of Solvang) to experience the open-flame cooking at Hitching Post II. The Hitching Post II was made famous in the 2004 Alexander Payne movie, "Sideways." "Sideways" was about two friends that spent the weekend in the valley going from bars to wineries before a big wedding, and finding themselves along the way. There are local tours that will take you to all the local spots where they filmed the movie. The bar in the Hitching Post was one of those locations. The Hitching Post is also known for its great open-flame grill that is viewable to most of the dining area. My friend and I dined on juicy, tender steaks, grilled shrimp, and sampled some local wine (my nephew had plenty to choose from on the kids' menu) before heading back to the hotel for the evening.

After fulfilling our breakfast requirements at Paula's on the third morning, we worked off the strawberry and whipped-cream toppings by strolling down the streets in the town center. We visited a few candy and ice cream stores (and sampled their wares), got lost in the toy stores, and managed to take in some fine art and a little literary history at the Hans Christian Andersen Museum.


We then jumped back in the Terrain and made way to Old Mission Santa Ines just a couple miles down Mission Drive. Old Mission Santa Ines was founded on September 17, 1804 by Father Estevan Tapis. It is the 19th of the 21 California missions established by Franciscan priests from 1769 to 1823. The mission overlooks the Santa Ynez River Valley and the Santa Ynez and San Rafael mountain ranges. The mission survived the great earthquake in 1812, rebellions, social upheaval, neglect, and an "illegal sale" of property before President Lincoln returned the mission to the Catholic Church on May 23, 1862. It wasn't until 1947 when the mission began its tremendous renovation to restore it back to its original beauty, and what it is today.

We took the self-guided tour that led us through six rooms of history lessons and showcases. Each room has a colorful audio description that explains the events that took place within the mission's walls, and what happened in the valleys of the area during that time. Exiting the last room, we walked outside into the center of the mission, where we saw a Celtic cross-shaped garden with a serene fountain in the middle. The ornamental gardens located in the center of the mission surround the inside of the walls and open up to reveal the mission's sacred cemetery.


Following our visit to the mission, we headed back to the hotel to pack our gear back into the Terrain. Although we weren't done for the day, our time in the little town of Solvang was at an end. We jumped on the northbound 101, then took Highway 154 towards Los Olivos, making a quick left on Zaca Station Road/Highway 176, also known as the Zaca Station Loop. Zaca Station Road eventually merges into Foxen Canyon Road, but still remains Highway 176. The two-lane road is surrounded by the rolling hills of the vineyards and cow pastures. There are several wineries along this loop. Most are open to the public for sampling and tours. The road leads us to several famous spots like the Fess Parker Winery also seen in the movie :Sideways." We stopped there, at Firestone Vineyard, and lastly at the Tres Hermanas Vineyard & Winery. We picked up a bottle of each winery's most popular wine.

Just after leaving Tres Hermanas, we continued down Foxen Canyon Road and came across a white chapel overlooking the hillside. It sat at the opening gates of the Rancho Sisquoc Winery. Although my nephew was sound asleep in the back seat, we decided to make one last stop just to check it out before we hit the road home.

Whatever roads you choose to follow in the Santa Ynez Valley, you're bound to find more than what you were looking for. That was certainly true on our self-guided journey that led us through Solvang, Los Olivos, Santa Maria, and the Santa Ynez Valley. We discovered the history of its fruitful soil, visited landmarks, and enjoyed the beauty the valley has to offer with entertainment for all ages...and we covered 1070 miles in the new 2010 GMC Terrain averaging an impressive 23 miles per gallon.


Sources:

Paula's Pancake House
1531 Mission Dr.
Solvang, California 93463

Apple Lane Farm
1200 Alamo Pintado Rd.
Solvang, California 93463
www.applelanesolvang.com

Morrell Nut & Berry Farm
1980 Alamo Pintado Rd.
Solvang, California 93463

Quicksilver Ranch
1555 Alamo Pintado Rd.
Solvang, California 93463
www.syv.com/qsminis

SYV Historical Society Museum and Parks-Janeway Carriage House
3596 Sagunto St.
Santa Ynez, California 93460

The Hitching Post II
406 E. Highway 246
Buellton, California
www.hitchingpost2.com

Hans Christian Andersen Museum
1680 Mission Dr.
Solvang, California 93463

Old Mission Santa Ines
1760 Mission Dr.
Solvang, California 93463
www.missionsantaines.org

Fess Parker Vineyard & Winery
6200 Foxen Canyon Rd.
Los Olivos, California 93441

Firestone Vineyard
5000 Zaca Station Rd.
Los Olivos, California 93441
www.firestonewine.com

Tres Hermanas Vineyard & Winery
9660 Foxen Canyon Rd.
Santa Maria, California 93457
www.treshermanaswinery.com

Rancho Sisquoc Winery & Chapel
600 Foxen Canyon Rd.
Santa Maria, California 93454

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