By Stephen Hale
Photography by Shelly Schmidt (except where noted)
Aiken is a town like few others, and it’s just down the road, only about an hour from Columbia by Interstate 20.
Renowned for its tree-lined boulevards and parkways, many unique, locally owned boutiques and a great mix of restaurants and nightlife, Aiken is every bit as friendly as typical Southern towns are famous for. Yet the citizens here enjoy higher than average income levels compared to elsewhere in the state; and it has been a major equestrian destination for well over a hundred years.
Thoroughbred training, foxhunting, eventing, dressage, horse shows, carriage driving, and pleasure riding go on all around the town and all around the calendar. Probably the most accessible sport to visitors is a chance to see the ‘Game of Kings’ – polo is played from March through June and September through November.
Since most folks have never taken in a polo match, it has the reputation of being exclusive, even a bit snobby. But that is just not so with Aiken polo. This is where more than 60 professional polo players have their farms for training their “ponies,” and the matches are all among friends – on the horses and along the sidelines. Since polo fields are nine times larger than football fields, there is plenty of room for your own little tailgate party. At the same time, nearly all of the tournaments have clubhouses or tents with good food and all manner of libations (see www.aikenpoloclub.org and www.302polo.com for schedules and information).
A large section of Aiken, just adjacent to downtown, is sequestered, quiet dirt roads set aside for the training of Thoroughbred racehorses. Like much of Aiken, standing at the rail at The Aiken Training Track is like taking step back in time. Here, all the old traditions are followed and you can speak with national-level trainers and owners as their steeds come flying past. Five Kentucky Derby winners and more than a dozen Preakness and Belmont Stakes winners have learned to run over this same track – and the favorite pastime is to try to guess which one will be Aiken’s next “big horse.”
Every March the Training Track hosts the Aiken Trials in which the young thoroughbreds get their first exposure to crowds and racing conditions. In both March and October, the Aiken Steeplechase Association holds nationally sanctioned races for huge crowds at the adjacent Ford Conger Field. On the third successive Saturday in March, the University of South Carolina at Aiken hosts a family-friendly polo tournament that rounds out the Aiken Triple Crown.
There are many sites to see, most of them a legacy of The Winter Colony of the Gilded
Age families who made Aiken their winter home to entertain and play their games – mostly on horseback.
Less than a half mile away from downtown is Aiken’s fabled 2,100 acre Hitchcock Woods, acclaimed as the largest urban forest in America, and left in a trust by the Hitchcock Family. No bicycles or horseless carriages, only foot traffic, horseback, and actual horse-drawn carriages may enter. Within a few steps, you are surrounded with the sounds and scents of the forest, just furlongs from downtown.
Aiken is also known for live theater, orchestral performances, and an active social set who are always looking for an opportunity to throw a party (whether for charity or just for fun). In the 1890’s the Northeastern high society discovered Aiken as the perfect place to train horses, and these scions of the founders of the American Industrial Revolution dedicated themselves to spending daddy’s money. They’ve been at it for 120 years. You could not go a week in Aiken without stumbling upon some kind of party.
Aikenites are always preparing for a festival (lobster racing is big here in May), horse show, polo match, sculling race, or soccer tournament – something is going on almost every week. Augusta National G.C., home of The Masters, is but 20 miles away from Aiken County’s dozen first-rate courses played over the same lush rolling terrain, two of which predate Augusta National – Palmetto Golf Club (1892) and The Aiken Golf Club, celebrating its centennial this year.
Perhaps the best day of the year to be in Aiken is Thanksgiving. It starts at 9 a.m. with a Bloodies and Bagels party for charity on the lawn of the Aiken County Historical Museum, housed in a grand old Winter Colony home on the edge of fabled Hitchcock Woods. Two hours later is everyone’s favorite Aiken tradition, the Blessing of the Hounds, about a half-mile stroll into the woods from the museum. Fox hunters from half-a-dozen hunts (different territories around the region) sit atop their mounts in the formal colors of their hunts, sipping champagne as a priest in his vestments (usually Anglican, Episcopalian, or Catholic) intones a centuries-old ritual blessing all the animals and people about to take part in the first hunt of the season. (The Aiken Hounds do not hunt live animals, but chase after the scent of a fox laid down earlier that morning.)
As they tear off into the woods at the blare of trumpets and calls of Talley Ho!, the day is not half done.
Less than a mile from the blessing is the 114-year-old Willcox hotel, named number 32 of The Best Hotels in the World this year by Travel + Leisure magazine and number 47 in the country by Conde Nast Traveler in 2011. The Willcox is elegance made available to everyone and is neither exclusive nor expensive. Out-of-towners can draw on the recommendations of Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelley, Commodore Vanderbilt, John Jacob Astor, both presidents Roosevelt and Winston Churchill – all of whom stayed many nights here. Here is the perfect place to pause for a Mimosa, tea, or other libation before moving on to One Table just two blocks away in the center of downtown Aiken.
In its seventh year in 2012, One Table is a community Thanksgiving dinner attended by about 3,000 citizens – those who are well-fed all year and many who are in need of a meal. Hundreds volunteer to cook turkeys, hams, and all the fixins all night so that the whole town can sit down together and give thanks for their beautiful town. It is an extraordinary experience and the food – begun seven years ago by the fire department – is just plain great. Every year so far has been blessed with perfect weather and the falling of an autumn leaf on your turkey dinner is a little extra accent to a great day.
Just in case you are in search of another unique Aiken event, come to town in February for six days of Juilliard in Aiken. Two local authors have bequeathed their “Winter Colony cottage” (64 rooms) to Juilliard for a future Southern campus and for the past three years the school has established a week of concerts, recitals, dance performances, and dozens of in-school workshops for all the kids in the county.
The Juilliard students choose to spend their spring break interacting with the children and adults of Aiken, teaching and performing classical music, jazz, ballet, modern dance, cabaret, and much more for a delighted audience – all of it reasonably priced and many without charge.
“We often have people from Aiken and Augusta book in for a night of rest and relaxation or a pampered weekend getaway without the drive,” said Willcox General Manager Tina McCarthy. She says that they also get “a lot of new friends from Columbia, Atlanta, Charlotte, Charleston, Savannah, and a lot of places in between.”
Whether it’s for a day of shopping with a great lunch, or a weekend getaway, you’ve never been to a place quite like Aiken, and it’s waiting for you just down the road.