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The Heart of Thoroughbred Country Has Horses and So Much More

Page Ivey Page Ivey
Discover writers share all of the places, activities and adventure that South Carolina has to offer. Read more from some of South Carolina’s locals and discover what’s happening in the Palmetto State.
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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 Willcox or Rose Hill Estate are the perfect stopping points. Each comes with all of the charm and ambiance of the 1920s.

For a taste of local flavor, have dinner at Whiskey Alley, a warm and inviting eatery offering small plates, entrees, salads and burgers along with whiskey and local beers. Chef Chad Jajczyk and his wife Chef Katie prepare a specials menu every day, featuring an array of appetizing entrees with vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options. Be sure to save room for their made-from-scratch sweet treats. Or 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 hop over to What's Cookin' Downtown. Not only is the home-cooked breakfast fare fantastic, you'll enjoy the restaurant's homey vibe with its handmade tables crafted from reclaimed wood and local artwork decorating the walls. If you want to fuel yourself for the busy day ahead, order The Troy, a savory breakfast sandwich featuring scrambled egg, bacon, sausage and cheese on wheat toast.

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, 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. 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 Joint, which offers some of the best pizza south of New York City. They make their dough. Try a slice and a cold beer. Add a salad 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.

Feel like mixing it up a bit. Malia's delivers with its culturaly diverse cuisine. While the two owner-chefs source their ingredients locally whenever possible, it's not unusual to find lamb from Australia, oysters from Apalachicola or salmon from Scotland on their ever-evolving menu. 

If you still have some energy after dinner, you can amuse yourself with a game at City Billiards. 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 or just grab a nosh from one of the food vendors. The Willcox will also pack you a polo picnic.

For dinner on Saturday, go casual at Betty's Round the Corner. This nostalgic little cafe offers classic dishes like hamburger steak, fettuccine Alfredo with grilled chicken or a Reuben sandwich -- all made in-house from scratch.

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.

If you're doing polo on Sunday, try that other famous activity on Saturday: golf. (Or go to the races on Saturday and 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. Another great choice is the course at nearby Hickory Knob State Resort Park.

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 Natural Area or at the lake at Hickory Knob. Both parks also offer miles of hiking or biking trails. After you've worked up an appetite, check out the restaurant at Hickory Knob.

Page Ivey
Discover writers share all of the places, activities and adventure that South Carolina has to offer. Read more from some of South Carolina’s locals and discover what’s happening in the Palmetto State.