Sexy Adventures, Mercedes Driving, and Farm Dudes: Camping 2.0

11.12.2013

By Diane Anderson-Minshall

How one weekend trip to an emerging California wine district reinvented camping for me forever.

Fe Ciega Vineyard in Santa Inez Valley

Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties
I told my new friend at GoRVing —  a coalition of RV manufacturers, component suppliers, dealers, and campgrounds — that I thought Lake Arrowhead would make a great destination. She reminded me that Lake Arrowhead was around 115 degrees that week and would probably not be a great place for tiny apartment-size dogs. Right. So I let her choose a spot on the map then, and she came up with the Santa Ynez Valley, one of the fastest-growing wine regions in a state famous for its wine, and an area in central part of the state that offers a lot of other adventures, from hiking to glider flights to the wonderful Danish village of Solvang.

We stopped first in Santa Paula, at the Ventura Ranch KOA, a 76-acre campground nestled in Heritage Valley at the foot of Ventura County’s highest mountain, Topa Topa.  Considering the KOA (that’s the country’s largest chain of developed campgrounds for the uninitiated) is up a mountain, next to a creek, surrounded by wildlife, and littered with stars, it was hard to believe it was only 15 miles from both the beach and even less from a freeway.

The campground, just off Highway 150 between Santa Paula and Ojai (which is the sort of the yoga retreat of the stars), was packed with people, some in tents and cabins, others like us in RVs, and even some in the park’s Native American teepees. There was a dog park on the grounds, but we spent our time walking our dogs along the trails that ran alongside the Santa Paula River. The river trail actually ran into an area the rangers there have dubbed Bigfoot’s Watering Hole, and they lead walks every Saturday night called Bigfoot Adventure Walks, in which kids go in search of the elusive creature by starlight.

The weekend we were there, the Ventura KOA was a flurry of activity, with kids and adults clamoring to get onto the local zip line (check that off my bucket list), the rock-climbing tower, race car pedal bike route, and something called a jumping pillow (sort of like a giant, safe trampoline), which gets so hot in the summer that it has a mister that goes off while you (or your kids) jump. During the season they play movies under the stars every Friday (bring your own blankets and popcorn). There was so much to do — especially if you have kids — that we needn’t have left the park to enjoy the day.

However, we’re drunken snobs with no kids, so after a nature hike and a zip line we headed out to the Citrus Classic Balloon Festival, an annual local tradition where you see hundreds of amazingly colorful hot air balloons, listen to live music, watch sky divers, drink it up in the beer garden, and try out a 15-foot tethered balloon flight that is perfect for wusses like me.
The next day we packed up (in an RV that takes about five minutes to stow your clothes and unplug the electricity — compare that to the old days of station wagon campouts!) and headed to Flying Flags RV Resort, just outside Solvang, a little Danish town in the heart of Santa Barbara County’s wine country.

Aebleskiver with raspberry jam from Solvang Restaurant

Solvang is a quaint Danish enclave that’s managed to retain its Scandinavian charm since Danish-Americans escaping harsh Iowa winters founded it over a century ago. There’s an annual Danish Days Festival every September and the wonderfully quaint Winterfest in December, but for me all it takes to feel the velkommen of the town is a walk along its European village-style streets, riding the Honen (a replica 1915 streetcar pulled by honey-colored draft horses), and chowing down on a plate of aebleskiver, a traditional dish from Denmark that is essentially round pancake balls often toped with powdered sugar and raspberry jam. (Try Solvang Restaurant or Olsen’s Danish Village Bakery, considered one of the best bakeries in the West for several decades).

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