To say that Hopelands Gardens is possibly the most beautiful place in Aiken is to say that it’s one of the most beautiful places you can imagine because Aiken itself is a city of remarkable and breathtaking beauty
That's especially true in the spring, when thousands of azaleas, dogwoods and magnolias burst into bloom along the streets, and fill the gardens of the historic houses and estates. It's also a wonderful place to spend the afternoon with children.
Hopelands Gardens is the vision and gift of Hope Iselin, who planned the gardens to surround her winter estate 100 years ago. Iselin bequeathed them to the city of Aiken after her death in 1970 at age 102. The gardens she designed and loved (and some say even helped plant) are now free and open to the public.
Children are welcome to come and skip down the paths that spill down rolling hills, run around under the massive Deodar cedar trees, and shout with joy when they find turtles in the wetlands and koi in the pond. Their parents can drink in the quiet order and symmetry of the long reflecting pool and meditate as they walk the labyrinth.
Iselin's other passion, besides gardening, was horse racing. In fact, she was known as "the great lady of racing" in her day. That she settled for the winters in Aiken should come as no surprise. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Aiken was home of the "Winter Colony," a group of fabulously wealthy and notoriously sports-minded families from the North who spent the winters in Aiken. It's said that their ideal day consisted of playing three sports -- one in the morning, one after lunch and a nice fox hunt as darkness fell. This elite equestrian set from New York brought both their animals and their love of all sports horse-related: racing, steeplechase, polo and dressage. Aiken has been horse crazed ever since.
The Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame and Museum occupies an old stable in the center of Hopelands Gardens. It, too, is free and open to the public. Inside, children and adults alike can learn more about these incredible animals, and the people who train and race them. There's a children's room upstairs, where little ones can play with the museum’s collection of horse stuffed animals.
It might seem surprising to find a museum dedicated to thoroughbred racehorses -- some of the most high-energy, high-strung athletes in history -- in the midst of the serene beauty of Hopelands Gardens.
But parents of any group of people in the world will understand that energetic creatures who want to run as fast as they can for the sheer joy of it can enjoy the lush loveliness of Hopelands.