Aiken: Rails, trails and tales
Story by Carolyn Males
Fred Astaire tap danced all over town, up the post office steps to retrieve his mail and across parlor floors to the delight of his neighbors. Bing Crosby teed it up at the Palmetto Golf Club, as did Dwight Eisenhower after watching the Masters golf tournament in nearby Augusta, Ga. And how about all those sightings of Franklin D. Roosevelt, allegedly on secret getaways with Lucy Mercer?
All had Aiken as their backdrop, a city that can boast about its abundance of great tales. Locals like to say even the town’s beginnings are wrapped in a colorful story of love and trains. In 1828, Alfred Dexter, a young railroad engineer, became smitten with the daughter of Captain W.W. Williams, owner of a vast cotton plantation. Legend has it that the captain, seeing an opportunity to get his crops more easily to market, made his own proposal: Run the rails through my property and I’ll give you my daughter’s hand. Both said “I do;” the railroad tracks were laid, and Aiken became a stop on the 136-mile Charleston & Hamburg Railroad, then the longest passenger line in the world.
The first area visitors were from Charleston, escaping the “noxious marsh vapors,” heat, and malaria of coastal summers. But by the1890s, as rail lines multiplied, Aiken became the Newport, R.I., of the South — in reverse — since northern industrialists, lured by the mild climate, flocked down here in winter months. Upper-crust folks like the Vanderbilts, Whitneys and Astors brought their love of thoroughbreds with them. And oh, “the cottages” they built — 22 or more rooms on landscaped grounds. In one such cottage, eccentric Washington, D.C., socialite Evalyn Walsh McLean stashed the Hope Diamond, rolling it up in her silk stockings and tucking it in a lingerie drawer lest thieves spirit it off. Yet, she’d play with her pricey bauble at parties, hiding it around the estate, sending her rich pals on a kind of glorified egg hunt. Or, she’d gussy up her poodle, the gem sparkling from its collar.
Today Aiken offers a charming walkable downtown with many a Laurens Street shop window reflecting the equine atmosphere. Gardens, Gilded Age mansions, mild winters, golf and a horse-centric culture attract families and retirees, along with the equine set. And it’s less than 3 hours away from Hilton Head Island.
What to Do:
Explore History: For history studded with entertaining tales of Aiken’s storied past, make reservations for the Saturday trolley tour. Board at the Aiken Visitors Center and Train Museum. Afterward, check out displays on railroading – train cars, miniature models of historical scenes, pictorial boards spiced with offbeat facts, plus trivia quizzes. Pick up a driving tour map detailing 97 historic buildings. Delve further at the Aiken County Historical Museum, loaded with information about local personalities, history (the last Civil War battle the South won happened in Aiken), nature, pottery, golf and more. Get the inside info on the U.S. Department of Energy’s mysterious Savannah River Site and the three nearby towns it engulfed in the 1950s at SRS Museum. Highlights include nuclear science exhibits, a bomb shelter replica and “Duck and Cover,” the iconic civil defense film of the 1950s. A Cold War-era cartoon starring Bert the Turtle offers cheery advice on surviving an atomic bomb.
Horse Around: While equestrian events occur year-round, the season revs up in cooler months with polo, steeplechase, flat racing, fox hunts, rodeos and horse shows. A prime training ground for Triple Crown champs, Aiken has many horse farms and equestrian centers, plus packed dirt roads ideal for equine outings. Watch riders jump 52-inch hurdles at the Aiken Fall Steeplechase on Oct. 28, or cheer on a polo match at Whitney Field. Then take a horseback or polo lesson, or a ride a mount through Hitchcock Woods, the largest urban park in the country. View racing silks, trophies and informative kiosks about past winners at the Aiken Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame and Museum. (www.aikensteeplechase.com)
Swing a Club: The members-only Palmetto Golf Club is the country’s second oldest continually operated 18-hole golf course in its original location. Noted architect Stanford White designed the clubhouse in 1902. The Aiken Golf Club, a public course completed in 1915, is noted for installing the first ladies’ tees in the U.S. (www.aikengolfclub.net)
Where to Stay:
The Willcox Hotel: The award-winning historic inn specializes in pure Southern elegance – spacious high-ceilinged rooms, spa and salon, fine dining and bar that spills into the lobby where a pianist plays. Wood paneling, fireplaces, horse-themed art and plush furnishings add to the hunt country ambiance. (www.thewillcox.com)
Carriage House Inn: When Anne Thomasson stumbled upon this 114-year-old home and taxi garage in 1986, it was ripe for condemnation. Today, along with the restored main house, the inn has expanded into a 37-room boutique hotel with modern amenities, including some rooms with steam showers and/or whirlpool baths. (www.aikencarriagehouse.com)
Inn at Rose Hill: This 1898 Dutch Colonial Shingle-Style mansion, once home to the founder of the Garden Club of South Carolina, offers nine charming rooms. A garden path leads to the Stables, an old horse barn transformed into a restaurant and bar, complete with hoof marks where its former four-legged residents kicked the wooden walls. A seasonal menu and a soon-to-open biergarten reflect the German heritage of the estate’s owners. (www.rosehillestate.com)
Where to Eat:
Fine Dining: Choose the clubby dining room and or one of the small tables tucked in the alcoves below the lobby bar at The Willcox. Make a tapas-style meal — ceviche, truffle fries, calamari, pate — from the Bites menu or indulge in heartier fare from the internationally inspired dinner menu. For melt-in-your mouth Black Angus or prime steaks, trot on over to the Prime Steakhouse. (www.primesteakhouseaiken.com)
Local Favorites: Malia’s (www.maliasrestaurant.com) specializes in locally sourced ingredients but even when it goes international with New Zealand lamb or Scottish salmon, freshness is a priority. Casa Bella lives up to its name in both food and decor. Chef Joe Iannelli from Abruzzo cooks up the delectable pastas, fish and meat dishes served up in this casabella Victorian house. (www.casabelliaitalianrestaurant.com)
Breakfast and Lunch Spots: Comfort food lovers pack the red Formica tables and retro soda fountain of Betsy’s On The Corner (www.betsysonthecorner.com) for eggs and grits, burgers, blue plate specials and ice cream. Entering the New Moon Café (www.newmoondowntown.homestead.com) is like having flashbacks to the ‘70s. Eat Carolina slaw dogs and sandwiches or sip smoothies and coffee beneath a painted moon while Jimi Hendrix and a funky gallery of painted faces look on. Get the inside track on racing news with a breakfast stop at the Track Kitchen where jockeys, trainers and horse owners hang out.