Aiken marries the elegance of an equestrian oasis with all the eccentricities of a small Southern town, what’s not to love? I was first charmed by this little slice of horse heaven when my husband and I stayed here during the Masters (Augusta National is about 30 minutes away) a couple of years ago. Oak lined streets with names like Whiskey and exquisite architectural relics of a winter colony’s past had me eager to return. As my due date looms closer, a “babymoon” was imminent. We decided on a trip to Aiken because I enjoy history and a bathing suit was not required, thank you very much. Those who love Charleston, Savannah and Highlands will find Aiken to be a more intimate destination with plenty to do, see and savor.
The Winter Colony
In the 1890s, Aiken entered its Golden Era thanks to Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Hitchcock who lured their friends down south to build magnificent estates in town. Everyone from the Whitneys to the Astors wintered in Aiken and enjoyed equine activities such as fox hunting and polo. Aiken also attracted the Hollywood likes of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward and Bing Crosby to enjoy its charm. As for small town eccentricities? Evelyn Walsh McLean, last private owner of the Hope Diamond, used to fasten it as a collar around her dog’s neck and let it prance around town. I found similar Aiken anecdotes in this great read by Pulitzer Prize winning authors Gregory White Smith and Steven W. Naifeh. Today, Aiken exists as a place where you can find a fabulous $5 meat and three lunch before tailgating at a casual low-goal polo game or enjoy a late afternoon court tennis match at the Aiken Tennis Club (one of only 9 places to play the sport in the US) followed by a four-course dinner at your members-only supper club. Unfussy at its finest!
The Stalls: Where to Stay
On our first trip to Aiken, we were fortunate enough to stay at the Green Boundary Club at the invitation of a relative. This Georgian-style home was turned into a supper club in 1956 when winter colony residents needed somewhere to dine on Thursday nights as all their cooks had off that evening. Today, members enjoy croquet on the lawn, delicious dinners and the option to stay in one of their six guest rooms. If you have the chance to visit or stay at the Green Boundary, you must!
Right in the heart of downtown is the Carriage House Inn where we enjoyed our weekend. As far as location, it cannot be beat; you are within walking distance of most of the shops, restaurants and attractions Aiken has to offer. It’s a true B & B with a full breakfast in the mornings and personable service throughout your stay. The accommodations in the historic home were not totally wow-worthy but if you are planning on being out and about most of the time, they are perfectly suitable.
I had originally tried to book a couple of nights at The Willcox, rated #7 on Travel and Leisure’s best hotels in the world list. Their room rates were surprisingly low but they had several weekends that were completely booked due to it being a popular wedding venue. We had a wonderful evening of dinner and drinks (mocktails for moi) at The Willcox and found it to be absolutely wonderful so if they have availability while you’re visiting Aiken, this is my recommendation!
The Paddocks: What to Do
My husband really indulged me on this one; an Aiken trolley tour hosted by local historian, Judith Burgess. We were the youngest people aboard the trolley by a couple of decades that Saturday morning but we both found the tour to be interesting, entertaining and helpful in navigating Aiken the rest of our stay. Judith points out local landmarks including historic homes and notable establishments and the tour includes a walk through the beautiful Hopeland Gardens and a whirl around the Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame. If you have a group of 15 or more, you can arrange for a private tour.
Exploring downtown was easy to do from our B & B on Laurens Street, the main drag. My favorite home stores (a weakness!) were Folly, Nandina Home and Plum Pudding. Lionel Smith, Ltd. had a handsome selection of menswear and we stopped in Bone-I-Fide for some homemade treats for our Westie, Wally. If you are an antiques lover, York Cottage Antiques is an elegant little shop filled with beautiful treasures. On Saturdays, the Farmer’s Market is seriously bustling and has everything from fresh produce to local wares.
If 90 degree heat in October wasn’t a factor, I would have loved to have taken a hike in Hitchcock Woods, the largest urban forest in the US that’s located just behind some of the most beautiful historic homes in Aiken. It was highly recommended by several locals!
Speaking of outdoor activities, you must attend a sporting event while you’re in town. Aiken makes it very easy to do so with a year-round horse-centric calendar. From races to polo games, you’re bound to find something spectacular to spectate at! We decided to catch a Governor’s Cup polo game one afternoon and just tailgated with a few other cars at Powderhouse Field. My dad, an authority on all things polo, gave me the hotline number to call (803-643-3611) that has a recording of all the scheduled games for the day. Easy peasy!
The Hay: Where to Dine
I saved the best for last! On our first night in town, we had dinner at The Willcox which was such a treat. The atmosphere was very fun with a buzzing crowd at the adjacent bar and lobby. You can have drinks and appetizers while sitting fireside in the lobby or go for a sit-down dinner with a full menu in the restaurant. It’s all seasonal fare and it was delicious!
Our second dinner at the Stables Restaurant at Rose Hill Estate was also wonderful. Arrive a little early and walk around the estate, which is now an inn, and I recommend going on a Friday evening when they have live music. The restaurant itself is in an old barn converted into a quirky and charming German inspired venue. The menu mixes everything from schnitzel to shrimp and grits; all our plates were quite good.
My favorite lunch spot was called New Moon Cafe; quite a bit hippie with a little ladies-who-lunch mixed in. It’s the perfect place for half a salad and wrap type of lunch right on Laurens Street downtown.
I should mention some other recommendations I heard that we didn’t get to dine at: Malia’s for dinner, Magnolia’s for lunch and What’s Cookin’ for true Southern stick-to-your-ribs fare (these are all on Laurens St).
In a nutshell, it was the perfect laid-back getaway for those seeking some charm. If you make it to Aiken sometime soon, you’ll have to let me know how you liked it! If you have already visited or go often, please do share your recommendations. I’m all ears!