Home and Away

These exotic destinations are nearby but feel like a world apart

Solvang, Calif.


From Denmark with love:
Traditional folk dancing
is one way the Danish
of Solvang, Calif., keep
their native culture alive.

In an old Steve Martin routine, the comedian talked about the importance of having reasonable goals. His own goal: “to be the all-being master of time, space and dimension. Then,” he’d add, “I want to go to Europe.”

That second goal has become somewhat more difficult to accomplish of late, for private citizens (however witty) and the meetings industry alike. While many planners doubtless would like to organize events in faraway locales, the reality of tightening budgets and the falling dollar likely is keeping them closer to home.

But that needn’t interfere with attendees’ taste for the exotic -- we’ve got plenty of that in our own backyard. Consider these cultural enclaves for a taste of foreign culture on domestic soil.

California Danish

In 1910, Danish pioneers seeking to escape the harsh winters of their earlier settlements in the Midwest purchased nearly 10,000 acres of fertile land in the rolling hills of California’s Santa Ynez Valley and began the village of Solvang (Danish for “sunny fields”). Today, the community, in the heart of Santa Barbara County’s wine country, succeeds in preserving the cherished traditions of the original settlers.

Danish bakeries, restaurants, specialty boutiques and hotels, all housed in distinctly Scandinavian architecture, comprise the four square blocks of Solvang’s center. Windmills, horse-drawn carriages and statues of storks nesting on the rooftops of buildings (meant to ward off bad luck) populate the landscape.

Charming accommodations within walking distance of the heart of town include the 39-room Petersen Village Inn (800-321-8985; www.peterseninn.com), which offers five meetings rooms seating up to 100, and the stately, 133-room Royal Scandinavian Inn (800-624-5572; www.royalscandinavianinn.com), featuring approximately 4,000 square feet of meeting space. A five-minute walk from the Inn will land you at the Elverhoj Museum (805-686-1211; www.elverhoj.org), where exhibitions celebrate Danish-American history and culture. The museum offers its gardens and galleries to groups of 15 to 150 people.

The 24-room Solvang Gardens Lodge (805-688-4404; www.solvanggardens.com) caters to smaller groups. Several of its rooms, all bearing the style of a classic Danish farmhouse, open onto a private garden area that can seat about 40 or accommodate up to 100 for a reception. Alternatively, the wide-open spaces of the 73-unit Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort (805-688-6411; www.alisal.com) lie just two miles down the road. This working cattle ranch, on a 10,000-acre spread of trails, golf courses and private lakes, is an option for team-building activities and corporate retreats.

JAPANTOWN, S.F.
In San Francisco’s Japantown (www.sfjapantown.org), visitors can stroll along the picturesque Fillmore District (pictured at right), peruse specialty boutiques offering silk kimonos and tea ceremony utensils, and meet in one of the neighborhood’s two hotels. The 125-room Best Western Hotel Tomo (415-921-4000; tomo.bestwestern.com) features decor inspired by Japanese pop culture; two outdoor pavilions totalling 1,000 square feet; and a Gaming Suite equipped with Nintendo, Wii and Sony PS3 video games to enjoy during meeting breaks. The more traditional 218-room Hotel Kabuki (415-922-3200; www.hotelkabuki.com) offers in-room tea ceremonies, as well as classes in taiko drumming and origami. The Kabuki Springs & Spa (415-922-6000; www.kabukisprings.com), a Japanese-style bathhouse featuring Shiatzu and Swedish massages, is just two doors down.

Basque in Boise

Basque immigrants began arriving in Idaho’s Boise Valley in the late 1800s, and today the region is home to the largest such community in the country (boisebasques.com). The ethnic group’s homeland, Basque Country, essentially comprises four provinces in north-central Spain and a small part of southwestern France. Basques speak their own language (Basque, or Euskara) and have a strong cultural identity. The Boise community takes pains to preserve that heritage, and nowhere is its public celebration of tradition more evident than in one colorful stretch of downtown known as the Basque Block.

Group-worthy venues here include:

* The Basque Museum and Cultural Center (208-343-2671; www.basquemuseum.com), which can arrange guided tours for groups of up to 12;

* The Basque Center (208-342-9983; www.basquecenter.com), a colorful gathering place and dance hall that can be rented for events and banquets that seat up to 420 people;

The Basque Center in Boise, Idaho
Spanish transplant:
The Basque Center
in Boise, Idaho,
is a cultural hub.

* The Gernika Basque Pub and Eatery (208-344-2175), which serves Basque soups, sandwiches and wine, along with specialties such as beef tongue in tomato and pepper sauce, all in a relaxed joint with a capacity of 32;

* Leku Ona (“good place”; 208-345-6665; www.iparagon.com/lekuona), a restaurant and five-room boutique hotel serving traditional meals as well as pinxtos (tapas), and which can host banquets of up to 85 in a private room; and

* The Fronton Building, a vintage early-1900s former boarding house with a fronton, or Basque handball, court on the lower level.

Events in the area may feature entertainment by the Oinkari Basque Dancers and catering by The Basque Market, which offers imported specialties and paella made in giant pans proportionate to group size.

The 250-room Grove Hotel (208-333-8000; www.grovehotelboise.com), with approximately 36,000 square feet of flexible meeting space, is just a half block away from all of the action in lively Grove Plaza, which also features the Boise Center on the Grove convention facility (with close to 85,000 square feet of event space) and the Qwest Arena. More than 750 additional hotel rooms are within walking distance.

Frankenmuth, Michigan
Germany on tap:
Frankenmuth, Mich.,
resembles a quaint
Bavarian village.

Bavarian Michigan

A genuine tourist draw in the middle of Michigan, the city of Frankenmuth, or “Michigan’s Little Bavaria,” can get hammy with its heritage (note the theme park and restaurants buzzing with lederhosen-clad waiters), but its credentials are authentic: Settled by 15 German Lutherans in 1845 as an outpost from which to spread Christianity among the Native American community, the city grew roots and became a destination for many more German immigrants who came to farm the land.

Today, some local farms continue to be run by their founding families. The Bavarian-style architecture, covered bridge and historic Main Street all pay tribute to the town’s origins.

A riverboat tour is a good way to become geographically and historically oriented to the area. Frankenmuth Paddlewheel Tours (866-808-2628; www.bavarianbelle.com) offers trips aboard the 150-passenger Bavarian Belle, which can be chartered for groups of 20 or more. A dinner option is available for groups of at least 40 and often includes German specialties such as kasseler rippchen (smoked pork loin with potato cheese puffs and sauerkraut).

Relatively new in town is the 38-room Marv Herzog Hotel (877-400-4210; www.marvherzoghotel.com), each room a tribute to a year in the life of Herzog (1932-2002), a Frankenmuth-born accordionist and bandleader who was legendary on the Bavarian-American polka circuit. Founded by Herzog’s friend Bob Drury (owner of the Drury Hotel chain), the property opened in May 2007 between Main Street and the Cass River and offers balconies overlooking either. Special amenities are granted to groups booking 15 or more rooms.

Venues with event space include the Bavarian Inn (800-228-2742; www.bavarianinn.com), a resort spread on 13 acres including a 360-room lodge, restaurants, shops and a theme park. Meeting facilities on site include the Bavarian Inn Lodge and Conference Center, for groups of five to 500, and the Bavarian Inn Restaurant, which can accommodate up to 375 people for banquets. Or consider Zehnder’s (800-863-7999; www.zehnders.com), the country’s oldest family-owned restaurant, which serves all-you-can-eat chicken dinners that some say put Frankenmuth on the map. Zehnder’s hosts events of up to 350.