Blink and you’ll miss Buellton, Calif., a tiny town a two-hour drive north of Los Angeles. And maybe that’s just fine with Buellton, one of those undiscovered destinations where everyone expects you to stay a few exits south, in touristy Santa Barbara, or just keep driving through to nearby Hearst Castle.
But, if you pull over, you’ll discover a place with a series of quirky, fascinating attractions that take a nice picture and a tasty, if not unexpected, cross-cultural experience.
I have to admit, Buellton’s presence was jarring to me when I drove south on California Highway 101. When I was a college student in Southern California, this town technically didn’t really exist. It wasn’t incorporated until 1992, a few years after I graduated. If you’re still having trouble placing it on the map, then think Pea Soup Andersen’s, the iconic roadside restaurant known for its split-pea soup. That’s where Buellton is.
Just across the street from Andersen’s is the new Sideways Inn, named after the cult film shot right here. It’s part of a sprawling Flying Flags RV Resort, with its rows upon rows of impressive land yachts.
Buellton definitely has a road theme going on. Across the old 101, which runs parallel to the current 101 and right next to Flying Flags, you’ll find the Mendenhall’s Museum, a private collection available by appointment only. You can tour its vast collection of gasoline pumps, globes and road signs.
Mark and Vickie Mendenhall, the museum's curators, live on the property and personally give all the tours. I was particularly impressed with their California license plate collection that goes back almost a century and tells the state's automotive history. You can easily identify plates issued during the world wars, as well as the state's evolving self-image, from agriculturally-focused to the diverse place it is today.
If you're in town for just one day, stop by OstrichLand USA, a 33-acre ranch where you can view and feed these ostriches and emus. That's right, feed. You get a dish of bird pellets, and the birds peck at them through a fence. Ostriches are known for being territorial and irritable, so the entire ranch is littered with warning signs, which of course I heeded but my children didn't. ("No, honey, don't feed the bird with your fingers!")
Somehow, our digits survived.
One of the best parts of Buellton is its central location. From here, you can quickly get to some of California’s best beaches. My favorites: Goleta Beach Park, right next to the University of California, Santa Barbara, campus. Walk out on the pier for a terrific view and you might see a shark or two, like we did. And Jalama Beach County Park, a 45-minute drive from Buellton on mountain roads that twist and turn their way to an abrupt end. If you go, you have to try the famous Jalama Burger at the General Store.
To get a better view, you have to get higher. We headed over to nearby Los Olivos for a hot air balloon ride with Sky’s The Limit, a regional operator. We’d seen their balloons flying over the wineries in Temecula, Calif., when we visited a few weeks before, and were dying of curiosity. What’s up there? On an early morning flight, we found out. Wineries, a bird’s-eye view of the beach, and Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch. Yes, this is where the Gloved One came to get away from Los Angeles.
From the sky, you’ll also see Solvang, a curious and unexpected place that all too often steals the spotlight from Buellton. And there’s a reason for it. Solvang is an American city that looks as if it belongs in Europe ― specifically, in Denmark. People come here to marvel at the faux Danish architecture, sample Danish pastries, and pretend they are not in the United States. Which is kind of difficult in the middle of one of the hottest summers on record, but I guess that’s what you call “willing suspension of disbelief.”
Solvang is worth a look, and you’ll find a few good restaurants and a lot of great pictures there, but if you’re coming here it isn’t the main attraction. To really experience the northern part of Southern California ― or as some call it, Central California ― you have to get out. Head to the mountains or the beaches, and push the boundaries a little.
Or, to borrow a word the Buelltonites like to use, go sideways.
Where to stay
In Buellton, the Sideways Inn is a fun, authentic experience. It has a nice pool, and breakfast is included in the room rate. The nearby Santa Ynez Valley Marriott caters to more of a business travel crowd and has an excellent on-site restaurant, which makes really good salad and sandwiches.
Where to eat
For breakfast, head over to Ellen’s Danish Pancake House (805) 688-5312 for the Danish pancakes. They’re oversize, thin, and not too sweet; you will want to order another plate. Go to Bacon & Brine in Solvang for lunch and order anything with a pickle. The pickles truly are one-of-a-kind. Try the Hitching Post II for dinner. The artichokes there are amazing, and the steaks are cooked to perfection.
What to do
You mean, apart from ballooning and visiting the beach? How about picking fruit? We had a fun afternoon harvesting delicious blueberries at Santa Barbara Blueberries. The hiking opportunities here are also extensive. You can find more on hiking and other outdoor activities at the Visit Buellton site.