The Heart of Thoroughbred Country Has Horses and So Much More

By:Page Ivey

Date:4/29/2015

So maybe you can’t come to Aiken, South Carolina like the society set of yesteryear and spend all winter here in a sprawling nine-bedroom “cottage.” But you can indulge yourself in some old time opulence without breaking the bank.

Aiken’s history is so completely tied to horses, whether they be quarter horses, polo ponies or steeplechase jumpers, it only makes sense to plan your visit to coincide with one of the many equestrian events in South Carolina. Even if you don’t have your own steed, you can enjoy watching others jump and race.

Arrive on Thursday

For an ideal equestrian-themed weekend in Aiken, start by arriving on a Thursday evening and plan to stay in one of the elegant hotels that harken back to Aiken’s days as a Winter Colony retreat. The W​illcox, the Hotel ​Aiken or, for a more bed-and-breakfast feel, Rose Hill E​state are the perfect stopping points. Each comes with all of the charm and ambiance of the 1920s.

For a casual dinner on your first night, check out Davor’​s Café, which serves everything from a bacon and pimento cheeseburger (cannot get much more Southern than that) to eggplant Napoleon with fresh mozzarella and homemade marinara. Davor’s offers small plates and prices range from $8 for a salad to $32 for a tenderloin. For about $11 per person, you also can sample some of South Carolina’s premier barbecue at Duke’s Bar-B​-Que. The buffet includes barbecue pork (add your own sauce), hash and rice, ribs, fried or barbecue chicken, a host of Southern veggies and, of course, banana pudding for dessert. If you’re going to Duke’s, get there early because they stop serving around 8:30 p.m.

Friday

Start your Friday right with breakfast at your hotel or drive over to Au​ten’s, which is well worth the trip. Even if you have never liked grits, you must try them here. You can get eggs, bacon (or sausage) and cheese grits all together in one bowl for about $6. If you cannot be convinced to sample the creamy grits, they will put the whole concoction in a baked potato half for about the same price.

After breakfast, it’s just a short drive to Hopelands ​Gardens. Located on the former winter estate of Hope Goddard Iselin and her industrialist husband C.O. Iselin, the gardens are home to coy, turtles, wood ducks and some of the most interestingly shaped live oaks you will ever see. Hopelands is also home to the Aiken Thoroughbred ​Racing Hall of Fame and Museum. You can learn all about the horsemen and women who made the city famous and the stables that still train some of the best race horses and steeplechase jumpers you will find. It’s all free, so come and go as you please.

For lunch, you can head back to town for some local brews and pub-style food at Aiken ​Brewing Company. Appetizers include ribs and wings with a collection of tasty salads and sandwiches for less than $10. You simply must try one of their home brews, like the Old Aiken Ale or the Thoroughbred Red. If it is a nice day, you can sit outside.

You also can get an outside table at The Pizza J​oint, which offers some of the best pizza south of New York City. They make their dough. Try a slice (about $4) and a cold beer ($4). Add a salad ($5) if you want to feel healthy.

Either spot is great for lunch because you will be right near all of the downtown shopping, especially on Laurens Street. An old-school hardware store sits among fine dress shops, antique stores and plenty of Southern gift shops.

For dinner, try the Willcox, which offers a selection of small plates that includes liver pate, chicken and waffle with sorghum chipotle syrup, and full entrees from a Carolina Gold rice dish to a filet.

If you’re looking for some music with dinner, check out The Red P​epper, which offers pork, beef, seafood and chicken with a side of music. Acts range from locals to nationally known performers, so make sure you bring your dancing shoes. Reservations are recommended.

If you still have some energy after dinner, you can amuse yourself with a game at City Bill​iards. When it opened in 1957, only the menfolk could play at the tables, but today it is open to all players. If you’re still hungry, City Billiards lays claim to the best cheeseburger in town. 

Saturday-Sunday

Saturday and Sunday are all about the horses in Aiken. Hit the polo fields or race tracks and spend the day at one of South Carolina’s largest outdoor cocktail parties. The Aiken Steeplechase is held in the spring and fall on a Saturday with gates opening at 9:30 a.m. Infield parking is about $100 per car with two event tickets included.

The Aiken Trials are held in the spring with horses running on a flat track.

Polo matches are held on Sunday afternoons starting at 3 p.m. You also can spring for a pass to the VIP tent (about $50 per person in advance, $75 on the day of the event), or just grab a nosh from one of the food vendors. The Willcox will also pack you a polo picnic for less than $20.

Tickets without tailgate parking or the VIP treatment are typically $10 or less.

For dinner on Saturday, try Up Your Alley​ ​Chophouse, which offers hand-cut steaks (topping out around $32), chops ($22) and that Southern classic, shrimp and grits ($16). Up Your Alley offers a late-night pub menu, as well. Reservations are recommended.

You can start your Sunday at the Willcox and its famous Sunday Brunch. You can go decadent with Belgian waffles or healthy with the Willcox’s “super food” dish with quinoa, roasted butternut squash, kale and poached eggs for about $12.

If you’re doing polo on Sunday, try that other famous activity on Saturday: golf. (If you’re doing the races on Saturday, you can play golf or get outdoors on Sunday.)

The Aiken Golf Club has been around since the Winter Colony days and is open for public play. Green fees are about $40 if you’re riding, or $25 if you are walking. Or you could try the course at the nearby Hickory ​Knob State Resort Park (about $35 with cart).

If you want to swing a different kind of stick, you can paddle on South Carolina’s famed Edisto River as it meanders through the Aiken State Natura​l Area or at the lake at Hickory Knob. Both parks also offer miles of hiking or biking trails. If you work up an appetite, check out the restaurant at Hickory Knob.

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