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The Santa Ynez Valley is on the inland side of the coastal mountains that form a backdrop to Santa Barbara. The road from Santa Barbara twists its way over the San Marcos Pass with panoramic views (on a clear day) of the ocean and the Channel Islands. The impracticality of building a large commuter freeway over the mountains has so far kept the valley distinctly isolated from urban development, leaving it for recreation, agriculture, and wineries.
Cachuma Lake is a manmade reservoir providing Santa Barbara with tap water that looks a lot better than it tastes. The lake is also an attractive and popular recreation area for camping, fishing, and boating (but no swimming is permitted).
Much of the valley is agricultural, including cattle and horse ranches and apple orchards. The soil and climate around the little town of Los Olivos is also good for grapes, and vintners are working to put the valley on the map of California wine regions. Some wineries supplement their income and marketing with tours and tastings.
Nojoqui Falls is a county park in the Santa Ynez Valley. The park is a
popular gathering place on weekends for picnics and club outings, but on
a weekday spring afternoon it’s delightfully peaceful. A short hike past
the picnic areas leads to the falls, which plunge 50 meters. The name
Nojoqui apparently comes from “na-Xu-wee,” which means
“meadow” in the language of the Purisimeño Chumash Indians who
once lived in the area. The “X” represents a guttural sound that
disappeared from English some 400 years ago (and possibly confused
whoever came up with the “Nojoqui” spelling), so it’s pronounced
About 10 kilometers from Nojoqui Falls is Solvang, the Santa Ynez Valley’s tourist lodestone. Danish immigrants settled there in 1911 to build a school and village that would preserve their heritage and culture. They named it “sunny valley,” presumably because the Santa Ynez Valley can get quite sunny and warm. When tourists started arriving to sample the cuisine and architecture, the Danes knew they had something worth exploiting.
If Disney ever decided to build a Danish theme park, it surely would look just like Solvang. In several square blocks of caricatured Scandinavian architecture there are scores of kitschy shops with costumed shopkeepers, roofs with green tiles and imitation storks’ nests, and four windmills. There’s even a replica of Copenhagen’s “Little Mermaid” statue, plus a park and museum dedicated to Hans Christian Andersen. The one genuine thing in Solvang is the cornucopia of food. There are numerous restaurants where you can sample Danish smorgasbord or aebleskiver, the spherical hybrid of a pancake and a doughnut served with powdered sugar and jam. If you’ve got any room left you can graze the equally-numerous bakeries, where you’ll find an endless variety of irresistibly delectable pastries, cookies, and confections.
After a visit to Solvang you might crave absolution for a multitude of sins involving sugar, butter, and chocolate. Mission Santa Inés is conveniently just across the road. The Franciscans founded it in 1804 as the 20th (and penultimate) California mission. With mountains isolating the valley from the Santa Barbara and La Purisima missions, the Franciscans saw a need for a new facility that could conveniently “serve” the Samala Chumash Indians (the Franciscans called them Inezeño). They named the mission for Saint Agnes, “patroness of bodily purity and chastity.” In naming the valley (and a town), Americans in the late 19th century misspelled Inés as Ynez.
The mission has its own version of a theme park. Next to the church,
overlooking a field where the mission’s grist mill once stood, is a
shady tree-lined grove with an array of crosses. Complete with painted
“blood,” each cross has a small painting depicting an event in the
Crucifixion story. So when you visit Danishland, don’t forget the side
trip to Calvary Adventure!