Arts and Culture 2011

Amy Holtcamp



Girlfriend Getaway: Pampering, picnicking and polo in Aiken

Posted 11/15/2011 11:23:00 AM

When planning a girlfriend getaway, do you really want a jam-packed itinerary that will have you trudging through a blurred array of “must see” monuments by day or screaming over your cocktails at trendy nightspots by night? Saying your goodbyes after a long weekend at a fast-paced tourist enclave might have you feeling that you haven’t really reconnected with your pals at all.

That’s what makes Aiken such a perfect spot for an autumn weekend away with your girlfriends. The town’s charm and history, combined with its laid back atmosphere, will allow you to spend quality time catching up with your friends while gathering some new experiences together. On top of that, the people who make Aiken their home are so friendly that you might just leave with some new girlfriends. too.

The Queen of the Winter Colonies

“Aiken is the gem of all the world,” says Aiken resident Gail Ebner. I met Ebner, like so many people in Aiken, when she introduced herself to me on the street. Like her neighbors, she loves the place she calls home.

“It just has such a wonderful history,” she says. “A dear friend of mine danced with Fred Astaire here!”

Aiken has a long and distinguished pedigree as a top getaway spot. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, well-to-do Yankees and celebrities flocked to the town to escape the harsh Northern winters, calling Aiken “the Queen of the Winter Colonies.” The mild climate allowed the elite vacationers to play three sports a day – polo in the morning, golf in the afternoon, and foxhunting in the evening.

Today the romantic spirit of that age lives on in the beauty of Aiken’s historic hotels and quaint downtown, Aiken’s lively horse culture, and especially the loving way in which the town has preserved the traditions of a bygone era.

Check in to a bygone era at the Willcox

There are many lovely places to stay in Aiken, but one of my favorites is the Willcox Hotel. In fact, the hotel was just named No. 47 on Condé Nast Traveler’s Readers’ Choice List of the Best Small Hotels in America.

As soon as you step into the lobby with its warm, wood paneling, impressive fireplaces and cushy sofas, you feel transported to another time. Hitting just the right blend of elegant and cozy, you’re tempted to put off checking in, order a Manhattan at the bar, and settle in by the fireplace for a snug tête-à-tête with your girlfriends.

But there will be plenty of time for that. Come back to the lobby at night and chances are you’ll find the place buzzing with activity. The restaurant is lovely and serves up delicious meals and snacks. My pasta special was an elegant take on autumnal comfort food, and the couple next to me raved about the sweet potato chips with blue cheese dipping sauce. Twice a week, the hotel hosts live music, transforming the stunning lobby into a piano bar on Tuesday nights and a jazz club on Sundays.

On the way up to your cozy, well-appointed bedrooms, take a look at the walls of the Willcox elevator for a photographic history lesson. In those sepia-toned photos you’ll see graceful women in floor length gowns next to stately gentleman atop their polo ponies. You’ll also see some of the celebrities who vacationed here, including a smiling Bing Crosby on the golf course.

Treat yourself like royalty

The Willcox once hosted the likes of Winston Churchill, President Roosevelt, Harold Vanderbilt and Elizabeth Arden. They were so popular that they even turned away the Prince of Wales once for lack of room. As a guest here, you might start to feel a little bit like a socialite yourself, or even a princess. You might as well indulge the notion and book yourself a massage at the Willcox’s spa.

The Spa at the Willcox offers a full menu of treatments including massage, body treatments, manicures and pedicures, facials and more. On my recent visit, I had one of the best massages of my life from my massage therapist, Amy, by the warmth of a glowing fireplace.

With some advance notice, the Willcox will even customize a spa party for you and your girlfriends, complete with spa treatments, cocktails and hors d’oevres.

Experience the thrill of the hunt in Hitchcock Woods

While you are in a tranquil mood, head over to Hitchcock Woods, which is just a stone’s throw from the Willcox. This is one of the most pleasant spots in Aiken and is one of the largest urban forests in the United States, offering more than 70 miles of trails. It’s the perfect place for a long walk with a friend; you can catch up on each other’s lives while passing magnificent scenery and crunching yellow leaves under your feet.

Here too, an Aiken native walking her dog spots me and strikes up a conversation. “It’s a beautiful place to walk your dog. And each entrance has its own character. It’s like a different forest.” With that, a squirrel catches her dog’s eye and he’s off like a shot. My new acquaintance is forced to say a hurried goodbye and go after him.

You’ll see lots of people jogging and walking their dogs, but don’t be surprised if you soon hear the pounding of hooves. Hitchcock Woods was designed in the 1920s as a place to train horses, and it remains an equestrian trail today. In fact, when following the trails, make sure to look up. The trail markers are situated high on the trees, perfect for reading on horseback.

From October through March, Hitchcock Woods also is home to another wonderful Aiken tradition: foxhunting with the Aiken Hounds. The hounds are unleashed on the park on Tuesday afternoons and Saturday mornings, and riders in formal livery follow them on horseback. It’s thrilling to hear the whelps of the dogs as they make their way through the forest. Incidentally, today live animals are only used in a few special hunts per year. Instead, most hunts are “drags” where a scent is literally dragged through the forest for the hounds to follow.

Spend a morning at the track

If you and your friends are early risers, you might grab a cup of coffee at the New Moon Café downtown. This eclectic coffee shop is a great place to spend some time people watching and their award-winning artisan roasted coffee is some of the best brew in town.

Once you’ve had your caffeine fix, head to the Aiken Training Track. This historic, red clay track is at the heart of the Aiken Horse District, and on some mornings you can find jockeys breezing horses there. In Aiken, anything to do with horses soon becomes a social event, so you probably won’t be alone; there will likely be locals there sipping their coffee too. Don’t be afraid to strike up a conversation – although if the friendly Aiken residents I met during my visit were any indication, the locals will probably beat you to the punch.

Tina McCarthy at the Willcox suggested heading to the nearby Track Kitchen for breakfast for “a real local experience.” This hole-in-the-wall eatery is a delight. The staff here is all smiles, and regulars greet them like old friends.

Order at the counter and then walk straight into the kitchen to pour your own coffee. Sit down among the regulars and enjoy a super egg sandwich or bacon and eggs with a side of buttery grits. Peer out the window and you’ll see the fog lifting in a field over the head of a beautiful horse, still wearing a blanket to protect him from the morning’s chill. It’s a great way to start the day.

Shop local in Aiken

You and your gal pals won’t want to miss Aiken’s quaint downtown. This is not one of those downtown shopping district that looks like a shopping mall; here you will find blocks and blocks of wonderful, independently owned shops.

One of my favorite places to shop while I’m there is the Aiken Center for the Arts. Part shop, part gallery, part classroom, this is a wonderful place to appreciate the amazing local artists who make the Aiken area their home. There’s great pottery, jewelry, prints and more for sale in the gift shop – all by local artists and craftspeople.

Walk down the block and you’ll find great antique shops, specialty shops and eateries. Cooks will want to stop in the Plum Pudding Gourmet Kitchen Store to browse the latest culinary gadgets and gizmos, and you can pick up a horse-themed souvenir at Equine Divine, or satisfy a sweet tooth with a cupcake at Neapolitan Cupcake and Gift Shop.

Polo ponies

The highlight of a fall visit to Aiken is getting to see a polo match. Polo is still thriving in Aiken; there are several polo fields right in the downtown area.

The closest I had ever been to a polo match before this was wearing a Ralph Lauren polo shirt. It’s a thrilling experience. The polo fields are huge expanses of green, and as the horses take to the field you can feel the pounding of their thundering hooves in your whole body.

Though it can take some time to fully understand the game if you’re a newcomer, the action of the game is thrilling. At the same time, there’s a fun, tailgating atmosphere. It’s amazing how this sport, that to many may seem the epitome of exclusivity, is, in Aiken, a completely relaxed and welcoming event.

If you’re staying at the Willcox, talk to them about their special “Polo the Willcox Way” package. You’ll get one or two nights accommodation at the hotel, and the hotel’s restaurant will pack a delicious picnic lunch that you’ll enjoy in the Willcox’s private tailgating area during a Sunday polo match at nearby Whitney Field.

Time to say goodbye

You’ll want to eke out every last minute of your visit to Aiken. Before I checked out, I hopped in the car and took a quick drive over to Hopeland Gardens.

Hope Iselin began developing the gardens around the turn of the 20th century as part of her family’s 14-acre estate. She bequeathed the gardens to Aiken upon her death in 1969, at the age of 102.

It is a wonderful gift. The garden paths meander through the park underneath magnificent 100-year-old live oak trees, and fountains trickle beneath cedars. Like so many places in Aiken, the love its residents have for this place shines through. It’s remarkable that so much of this beautiful town is public space; wealthy citizens like Hope Iselin and the Hitchcocks loved their land so much they wanted to share it with as many people as possible.

During my visit to Hopeland Gardens I could see the fall color just starting to burst through the green in the trees. The mild Southern climate that drew the winter colonists here decades ago means that there are still flowers in full bloom as the leaves begin to fall. I took a deep breath of the crisp fall air. It was time to leave, but I left happy, renewed, and refreshed.

If you go

Girlfriends planning getaways can make reservations for the Willcox by visiting the website or by calling (877) 648-2200. Rates range from $185 for a Superior Room to $425 for the Roosevelt Suite. In addition, see their website for a listing of spa treatments and restaurant menus.

There are several entrances to Hitchcock Woods. Ask at the hotel for directions or try the entrance at 430 South Boundary Avenue SW, which is the nearest entrance to the iconic Memorial Gate. Memorial Gate is the site of the annual Blessing of the Hounds, held annually on Thanksgiving Day.

Track Kitchen is located at 420 Mead Ave. in the Horse District. Their hours are 7 a.m. to 1 p.m.

If you’re like me, you’ve never had a chance to attend a live polo match. For a crash course in the game, polo etiquette and more, click here. Learning a little bit about polo before you attend a match will increase your enjoyment of the sport immeasurably.

Girlfriend Getaway? Aiken, SC is the place!