Of Volcanoes And Vikings

California-Nevada-Arizona-Utah Road Trip — Chapter 2

You can read “Chapter 1 — Of Sands, Seas and Seagulls” here.

“I’m going to give you the best room in this hotel — you’ll have a view of the ocean”, the manager of this motel told us in his excited voice. We forgot our travel weariness for a brief moment as we rushed up to the room and threw open the curtains in dramatic style. Lo behold, it was one of the most underwhelming sights I had ever seen — a plain, brown building. And next to it, another plain, brown building. There was a tiny gap though, between those two buildings. In that gap, we could faintly see the surf of the ocean crashing against the beach. Well, the manager was not lying. There was a view…

The morning came with a better view. There were seagulls too, gazing out at the distant horizon pondering about who knows what.

After a quick morning jog along the beach at San Simeon and a breakfast where we were subject to awkward cultural stereotypes (ask me about it), we headed back on to the Pacific Coastal Highway. After driving for about half an hour, we reached another gorgeous spot along the coast — a place where the coastline curved inward to form a long, sweeping, dramatic arc. We stopped the car and walked along the long boardwalk where a plaque told us that we were in the town of Cayucos.

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Basking in the winter sun at the boardwalk at Cayucos

Cayucos seemed like the quintessential Southern Californian beach town — colorful houses hugging the beach, a brown hilly landscape in the background, palm trees lining the road, the sun beating down on those shimmering waves, and most importantly, the presence of little black specks bobbing up and down in the water — surfers. Lots of surfers.

Surfers patiently waiting for the next big breaker.

California has a big surfing culture. The major reason for that is probably the weather — all year sun with negligible rains (you guessed right, the state of California is in drought) and powerful waves. That said, don’t let that fool you into thinking that the water is nice and warm. It isn’t. It is frigid and cold. You will probably die of hypothermia if you surf for a long period of time without a wetsuit.

After flashing the Shaka sign at the surfers below, we decided that it was time to leave, lest we brand ourselves as Kooks or worse, Hodads! We got back on to the road, but only momentarily though. After a 5 minute drive, a massive rock formation began to appear on our right jutting straight out of the Ocean. Signboards told us that it was called Morro Rock — an ancient volcanic residue that had now been converted into a State Park.

Morro Rock and the lone seagull

On the scale of hills and mountains, Morro Rock isn’t that tall (it’s 581 meters above sea level). But there’s something alluring about the rock, a kind of magical pull that entices you to come closer and scale it. From distance, Morro Rock looked like an island, but when we inched closer, we realized that there was an isthmus connecting it from the mainland. That means we could drive to it. Hooray!

However alluring it might be, climbing the rock is a strict no-no. Unless of course, you’re Indian. Ahem, not the kind of Indians Christopher Columbus set out to find, but the kind of Indians he actually ended up finding. Turns out that Morro Rock is a sacred site for two Native American tribes who are in legal dispute about whether it is a spiritual or a sacrilegious act to climb the rock. I’m sure environmentalists would be happy if we humans left the place undisturbed, especially since the rock is an active nesting ground for Peregrine Falcons. (Time sink warning : https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=peregrine+falcon)

Unfortunately, we didn’t see any Peregrine Falcons that day. What we did see were chipmunks, sea shells, a secluded beach, warmer waters (because this formed an enclosed estuary) and waves of the ocean-at-large crashing against the rocks. Though we had barely traveled a mile from the town, it seemed like we were cut-off from civilization altogether.

A chipmunk sentry scanning the skies for signs of a Peregrine Falcon

After spending a good chunk of mid-morning and early afternoon at Morro Rock, we headed back on the road. We sped past San Luis Obispo (which my past experience tells me has a great nightlife, but not a lot to do during the day) and Pismo Beach (a cute beach town, but after a while, all beach towns look the same), bypassed Vandenburg Air Force Base (for obvious reasons since missiles get launched from there), joined US Highway 101 and went on an expedition to discover Denmark.

“Wait, what? Scandinavia is like 5000 miles away!” I hear you say. Well, if there can be Chinatowns and Little Italys and Little Russias, why not, a uhm…Mini-Denmark? Apparently, that’s what these early Danish immigrants from the Midwest thought when they acquired a bunch of land in this part of California. Over the course of time as more Danish immigrants poured in, this barren valley straddled by the Santa Ynez and San Rafael mountains blossomed into a classical Danish town called Solvang.

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Solvang — nicknamed as the Danish capital of the US

Whether or not the town has retained it’s Danish identity is unclear. Having never been to Denmark, I cannot say with certainty how much of what I saw was authentic Danish culture versus tacky, touristy, Disney re-creation. If I were to go by the answer the curator of the Elverhøj Musuem gave me, it’s a mixture of both.

Danish bakeries, breweries and of course, windmills!

Tacky or not, the town has a cute and cozy feel to it. The town center area is filled with colorful shops, restaurants and cafes. There are a million Danish bakeries, a billion souvenir shops and a gazillion Scandinavian cultural references everywhere — The Little Mermaid Restaurant, Hamlet Inn, Red Viking Restaurant and so on…The architecture is fun to experience — red sloping brick roofs, clock towers and of course, windmills. And yes, you guessed right — there is also a Hans Christian Andersen museum here.

Rugbrød burritos anyone?

We spent quite a bit of time going on a Danish Bakery crawl (you know, like a pub crawl, except that instead of drinking a pint of beer, you eat a Danish pastry at each place) and yet our ravenous appetites remained unfulfilled. And so we decided to find a place to have an early European style dinner. After dodging a horse cart (yes, you can take a horse cart tour of the town for $12), we entered one of those aforementioned Scandinavian themed restaurants. I had a hunch that Danish cuisine wouldn’t be the best for vegetarians. Regardless, the Anthony Bourdain in me wanted to try out whatever they had in store for me. The only option I had there was a Danish sandwich. Sounds filling, doesn’t it? Well, here’s what it had — a slice of rye bread, a slice of Danish Tilsit cheese, a sliver of bell pepper and a slice of radish. Sometimes I wonder if the world equates being vegetarian to eating less.

As twilight began to settle in, we said goodbye to Solvang and headed back on the road towards Santa Barbara, which was our pitstop for Day 2.

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Day 2, ~150 miles, ~3 hour driving time

For more details on the places we visited, check out my Yelp Reviews at http://www.yelp.com/list/road-trip-along-the-pch-part-2-solvang

Engineering Manager. Part-time novelist. I write about travel, food, engineering, books, movies, and life.

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