NESTLED in one of the world's most beautiful locales, the Santa Ynez Valley, a tiny Danish replica hamlet called Solvang is set like an old-fashioned jewel in a late-autumn matrix of pastoral gold. Solvang is time out of time, a reverse pentimento of past, layered over present. This seems especially so when you happen upon Solvang via San Marcos Pass from Santa Barbara, a drive up Route 154 that climbs from the sea, passing near President Reagan's ranch, skirting sapphire-blue Lake Cachuma.
When the village appears, yesterday seems now; today is simply ignored in the presence of architectural features like real Danish provincial windmills, bindingsvaerk crossbeams, ``thatch'' roofs held in place with crossed wood kragetraer, all topped for good fortune with wooden storks -- since real storks are not native to California. As in Copenhagen, many roofs in Solvang are of steep-angled copper, aged to a serene aqua green.
In Solvang -- which in English means ``Sunny Field'' -- every day is Christmas or whatever special day you wish, for Solvang nurtures the child inside with little shops overflowing with intriguing toys and gnomes and wooden nutcrackers, each establishment with its own history. One shop has hundreds of breathtakingly beautiful dolls of every size from around the world. There are baby dolls, large boy and girls dolls, porcelain dolls, and lady and gentleman dolls authentically costumed in theatrical or native dress.
Outside again, one can wander up stairs and around corners to find nooks filled with delicate and unusual European Christmas ornaments - even items from ``Eastern bloc'' nations. There is an unusual clock shop that carries amber paperweights and jewelry from the Baltic Sea. And if your taste runs to plaids, you can find a shop carrying authentic Scottish family tartans.
In your meandering, you might come upon the place to buy a huge German B"osendorfer grand piano or a grand-sized player piano, or other antiques as new looking as the day they graced the parlors of long ago.
Altogether, the streets and shops of Solvang abound with internationally flavored wonderment.
Disbelief is quite easy to suspend when your nostrils are assailed by aromas from a variety of bakeries featuring the fine pastries and breads for which Denmark is famous. If your nose can't locate the source of enticement, look for the large golden pretzel, or ``kringle,'' hanging in front of every bakery. Delicious aromas also waft from Danish goodies in small shops purveying ice cream, butter-cream fudge, and aebelskiver - a crepelike apple dessert.
Seated in the warm sun at one of several street-side caf'es, you can feast on the view of colorful flowers stuffed into every available niche and fill your ears with sounds of bubbling fountains and friendly Danish accents. For more substantial food, there is plenty to tickle the palate in the way of tempting cuisine from recipes that originated on the Jutland Peninsula.
The atmosphere of Solvang is as fresh as its high valley air, insulated from smog and fog between two protective rock barricades, the Santa Ynez and San Rafael Mountains. And the clean streets are hallmarks just as much as happiness appears to be.
The first Danes to view this valley were not the usual settlers looking for land and wealth, but a trio of educated pioneers who had a far different goal, education - and a far different idea of what education is. Colonies of immigrants to America usually settled together to perpetuate the old ways, and the Danes were no different. They had established colonies on the East Coast and in the Midwest.
During the Danish Lutheran Church Convention in June, 1910, a decision was reached to found a West Coast colony. Its main focus would be a Danish folk school to give the colonists training and education in the Danish way of life. Central to the philosophy was the idea that education should be directed toward living life, not just earning a living. The result was Atterdag College, whose name poetically means ``there shall be another day.'' Here were no examinations, no degrees, but a love of life and learning. Courses offered included math, literature, history, writing, debates, drama, gymnastics, and sanglege -- singing dances, where the old songs of right and courage, heroism and integrity were celebrated.
This noble project ended in 1937, victim to the Great Depression, which brought a need for ``practical'' education geared toward vocational preparation. But as one enjoys the streets of Solvang, it is clear that Atterdag merely closed its doors; its ideals still activate the children and great-grandchildren of the students who learned there. Additional places to visit
Santa Ynez Valley is horse country, where horse lovers can visit ranches that raise such exotic breeds as the Peruvian Paso, the Icelandic, the Tennessee walking horse, Arabians, Thoroughbreds, American paints, and quarter horses. On festive days one can also see huge blond Belgians, pulling the Honen and Carlsburg wagons through the streets of Solvang. ``Roundup vacations'' are available on area guest ranches with golf, tennis, horseback riding, and swimming.
Los Padres National Forest is close by, and on Cachuma Lake there are naturalist activities such as water trails, nature walks, night walks; and family fireside naturalist programs and other entertainment held in an outdoor amphitheater located in the campground. Don't forget to bring your fishing pole! Cachuma is stocked by a private fish breeder as well as by the California Department of Fish and Game, and to make your fishing a lot more interesting, they throw in lunker trout.
Historic landmarks tours will introduce you to the valley-at-large and the quaint townships of Los Olivos, Santa Ynez, and Ballard. Wherever your whims take you, there will be beautiful views and friendly people.