Welcoming Boulevards Guide You Through This Charming Southern Belle
by Warren Grant
In 1833, the longest railroad line in the entire world stretched 136 miles from Charleston, SC, northwest to the Savannah River, just across from Augusta. The town that sprung up two years later around the river terminus of the rail line was named Aiken after William Aiken, the president of the South Carolina Railroad Company that built the lin
The new town’s welcoming boulevards were laid out by engineers in a perfect grid pattern with the lanes of several streets divided by broad and inviting park-like medians. Within a few years, the fledgling town grew in both size and in reputation as a healing getaway for wealthy Charlestonians, who rode the train to Aiken seeking refuge from the Lowcountry’s sweltering summer heat and the threat of disease. Aiken was on the map!
If the railroad was the first milestone in Aiken’s vibrant past, the second occurred in 1870, just five years after the Civil War (throughout which the town remained relatively unscathed). That was the year that Thomas Hitchcock, Sr., a wealthy northern businessman and one of the leading polo players of the day, and financier William C. Whitney established the Aiken Winter Colony, owing mainly to Aiken’s pleasant climate and yielding sandy soil, perfect for training their stables of thoroughbred horses and polo ponies during the winter.
Word quickly spread about Aiken’s Winter Colony, attracting scores of families like the Astors and the Vanderbilts, who built winter mansions and brought golf, fashion, refinement, and hundreds more pedigreed horses, cementing the town’s reputation as one of the premier equestrian centers in the country.
Today, Aiken is a charming Southern Belle of a city—historically steeped and culturally enriched. Accordingly, Aiken was just last year awarded both the “Best Small Town of the South” and “Friendliest Town in the South” by Southern Living.
Visitors to Aiken can experience a glimpse of the Gilded Age with a stay at the Rose Hill Estate, built as a “Winter” home in 1898 and covering a full city block downtown. Six of the estate’s original buildings have been elegantly reimagined as B&B accommodations, a special event space, and an opulent dining room. The five-acre estate’s lush gardens are legendary and a must-tour.
Another expression of elegant Southern hospitality is The Willcox, the acknowledged front porch of Aiken and a remarkable hotel, restaurant, and spa. The Willcox was voted one of the best hotels in the world, “whose grand white-pillared glory is as lovely and genteel as a rose on a lapel,” by one description.
One needn’t love horses to love a visit to Aiken, but it doesn’t hurt, as equestrian pursuits utterly inform the elegant town. Aiken plays host to every national competitive equestrian activity (mostly in the spring and fall and all open to the public), including steeplechase racing, Sunday afternoon polo matches, thoroughbred racing, eventing, dressage, hunter-jumper events, and carriage races. Horses even have the right of way on city streets!
In Aiken, you can tour the Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame, or start your day very early with pancakes at the legendary Aiken Training Track. Have the Willcox pack you a picnic to take to the polo matches, or rent horses and take a trail ride in Hitchcock Woods, the largest urban forest in the United States at 2,100 acres. On Thanksgiving Day, there’s the annual Blessing of the Hounds followed by one of several fox hunts planned during the year.
The Aiken Trolley offers a fascinating two-hour tour of the town, but plan early as it runs just once a week on Saturday mornings. You’ll learn the rich history of Aiken, including such morsels as long-time part-time resident Fred Astaire lightly tap-dancing down the town’s post office stairs after retrieving his mail and the socialite who used to wear the Hope Diamond around town casually.
Part of the trolley tour travels down the stunning Avenue of Oaks on South Boundary Street. The oaks were planted through the 1880s, along with an additional 500 trees of varying species that today breathe life, beauty, and wildlife habitat into the broad, park-like medians foresightedly planned in 1835.
As evening approaches, duck down the street from The Willcox and discover The Alley. Once home to blacksmith shops and stables, The Alley boasts inviting watering holes like the Aiken Brewing Company and the Alley Downtown Taproom. The fare at the Whiskey Alley restaurant is unpretentious, yet sumptuous.
Regarded as a cultural hub in the Southeast, Aiken hosts a variety of arts events each year, most notably the weeklong Joye in Aiken Performing Arts Festival, a collaboration with the esteemed Juilliard School that brings in students, faculty, alumni, and other artists for performances and workshops, all open to the public. Plan for the 2020 event to be held next March
Aiken also has a thriving medical community through the Aiken Regional Medical Centers. And, the University of South Carolina-Aiken offers myriad continuing education programs fittingly, even some Equestrian Online Classes.
For a full list of amenities, festivals, and equestrian events go to www.visitaikensc.com.
Located just minutes south of Aiken’s equestrian heart is Woodside, a private, 2,300-acre planned community affording graceful living, four golf courses—from Nicklaus to Fazio—bountiful amenities, and countless social groups and clubs to engage residents. Woodside is proudly one of only 12 Southern Living Inspired Communities in the Southeast. Plan a 3-day/2-night Discovery Package at Woodside.
Mount Vintage is a 2,000-acre community located just north of Augusta and Aiken. The centerpiece of the community is a 27-hole golf club and its clubhouse, whose historic core is a restored plantation house, circa 1840. The Mount Vintage Town Center and Athletic Club offer tennis, fitness, swimming pool, community garden, activity rooms, plus a genteel spirit of social engagement. Visit Mount Vintage.