Spring comes early to Aiken, South Carolina. While the Northeast is still in the throes of sleet and ice, in Aiken red-breasted cardinals pitch and dive in front of white-pillared mansions and cherry trees are in bloom. Warmer weather might be the only thing that happens faster in Aiken than up North. Otherwise, this attractive spot is a walk back in time.
If Wellington is the Horse world’s Hamptons, expensive and glitzy, then Aiken is the Horse world’s Newport—slower, steeped in history and old-fashioned in a good way. Like Newport, Aiken was settled by some of the renown families of the 19th century. Thomas Hitchcock, Sr. and William C. Whitney were the first to turn the town originally founded as a rail stop in 1835 into a “Winter Colony” for members of the Bostwick, Astor, Vanderbilt, Grace, Eustis, and Harriman families. This group and others like them regularly escaped to Aiken to avoid harsh Northern winters and the potential ravages of tuberculosis for the sporty, healthy life, and sweet Carolina air.
Equestrians were particularly drawn to Aiken for its mild climate, not too hot and the perfect footing for horses. Aiken’s gallops are world renown and until recently Dubai’s Sheik Mohamed owned the premier training facility. With scores of polo fields, fox and drag hunting are just a few of horse-related activities. Aiken may be the only town in America with “walk” buttons at horse height.
It is an active person’s paradise; the Aiken Golf Club is right in the center of town (Fred Astaire once teed off there) and there is even a Real Tennis Club, so welcoming that the door is left unlocked so anyone can have a peek.
Aiken thrived until World War II and then had another resurgence in the 1950s. Normally, news that a nuclear power plant is moving to your neck of the woods wouldn’t be a good thing, but the Savannah River power plant drew of a slew of scientists and researchers to the area who took up the sporting life of earlier families with alacrity.
Now, the popularity of the town is on the rise again: real estate prices are up, but not so much as to change the character of the town. New Yorkers Fernanda and Kirk Henckels were so won over by Aiken’s charm they committed to spending every winter there and even built a house in the center of their stable to ensure maximum horse viewing at all times. “It’s essentially an adult summer camp, but from January–April,” says Henckels.
Aiken’s appeal for the equestrian community remains as strong as ever with their yearly invitational for visitors to their “Hunt Week” in February. Every day there is a horse-related activity, either the chance to ride out with the Whisky Road Fox Hounds or the Aiken Drag Hounds or spending time in the Hitchcock woods—at 2,1000 acres the largest urban forest East of the Mississippi, filled with sandy trails and horse jumps. Every evening, the hunt hosts either a cocktail party, a shopping event, or the highly anticipated hunt ball. But no one is pulling an all-nighter here. The parties start and end early, hardly a soul is up past 10:00 p.m., as everyone needs to be up and, on a horse, the next day.
My experience of Aiken is that its reputation as a friendly place to visitors is well-deserved. I stayed in the Willcox Hotel, recently restored to its former glory, by new owners Geoffrey and Shannon Ellis. My large, well-appointed bedroom and deep and pristine bathtub were a great treat after days in the saddle. The food at the restaurant is fresh and varied and the people who work at the Willcox are so kind being in their presence is a soothing balm.
My final morning, I headed over past the Mead gallops to the Track Kitchen for breakfast. If it were up to me, places like Track Kitchen would be added to the National Register of Historic Places. Opened in 1978, under sweeping long branches of the famous Aiken oak trees, Carol Carter, the proprietor still works every day from 7 a.m. serving the local community the kind of American breakfast you’d travel the length of the country to find. Grits, home fries, sausages and bacon are prepared with perfectly cooked sides of toast and grape jelly for under $10. Aiken is a wonderful town in America and one we hope will keep its spirit alive for ages to come.