Aiken is a true Southern gem. Recently voted No. 1 in “The South’s Best Small Towns 2018” by Southern Living, it is a charming horse-minded town with beautiful tree-lined streets, majestic oaks, historic homes, and fascinating people. Known throughout the world for its equestrian events, Aiken also offers beautiful nature trails, delicious restaurants, unique specialty shops, and quaint charm. Aiken is sophistication personified.
An easy one-hour drive from Columbia, Aiken is also home to Palmetto Golf Club, the oldest golf course in South Carolina. My well-planned girls' getaway to this delightful town corresponded with the much-anticipated Aiken Antique Show in February 2018, and I was not disappointed.
We checked into the world-renowned Willcox Hotel early in the afternoon and were greeted by the hotel manager, Tina McCarthy, and a cheerful staff. Built in the late 1800s for well-to-do Northerners escaping to the South for warmer weather and the draw of a thoroughbred community, the Willcox was voted as one of the best hotels in the world by both Conde Nast Traveler and Travel and Leisure.
This gracious hotel boasts long white porches with white pillars and exudes Southern charm. The atmosphere of the large open lobby with burning fires, cozy seating groups, and an inviting polished wood bar made me feel welcomed. The hotel was full and buzzing with activity. We set out to explore the town, discovering that the historic downtown boasts many great shops: Nandina for home decor, specialty gift shops including Folly and 3 Monkeys, gourmet kitchen shop Plum Pudding, Barbara Sue Brodie Needleworks, York Cottage Antiques, and more. We browsed Needleworks and York Cottage Antiques and then popped into Betsy’s on the Corner for an ice cream and Cyndi’s Sweet Shoppe for a few other delectable treats.
That evening we attended the 19th annual Aiken Antiques Show Cocktails & Collectors preview party, a major fundraiser for Aiken Center for the Arts. This show includes 22 specialized dealers from across the Southeast showcasing antique furniture, art, linens, silver, estate jewelry, and objects for the garden. Next year will mark its 20th year. We wandered the aisles of the festive venue, finding treasures and visiting with new found friends who attend this event each year. Later, we enjoyed cocktails at the Willcox, where we sat by the welcoming fire enjoying live music.
In the morning after coffee, we revisited the antique show, made more new friends, and then enjoyed a great lunch at an Aiken institution, Malia’s, where we shared their famous cheeseburger and were charmed by a handsome and attentive waiter. We learned that Malia’s, founded 26 years ago, is operated by owner and chef Malia Koelker and touts a menu that changes monthly.
A drive from our hotel uncovered neighborhoods filled with classic charm and historical significance. The canopy of live oaks on South Boundary was breathtaking, and a rich Southern culture permeates the vast estates of Aiken’s “Winter Colony.” We walked the wide dirt roads where the training and steeplechase tracks are located, were passed by friendly riders on horseback, and peeked through gorgeous gates at alluring gardens and magnificent estates.
We discovered that the area is home to “Bruce’s Field,” a well-known horse facility that is part of the Aiken Horse Park Foundation, a unique Aiken equestrian tradition with the best horse park facilities in South Carolina. We also discovered Hitchcock Woods, just a short walk from our hotel, consisting of 2,100 acres of forest habitat with 70 miles of trails. It hosts the Aiken Horse Show, which celebrated its 102nd consecutive year in 2018, as well as the Blessing of the Hounds each Thanksgiving Day to kick off Aiken’s hunt season.
Dinner reservations at the Willcox Hotel that evening in its beautiful dining room proved to be an excellent choice. I enjoyed a delicious Caesar salad with grilled romaine, bacon, garlic croutons, and white anchovies as a starter followed by a perfectly cooked filet with asparagus and brandy-peppercorn au jus. We shared a melt-in-your-mouth chocolate espresso cheesecake for dessert, paired with a nice cabernet.
On our last day in Aiken, we stopped by York Cottage Antiques to pick up a few purchases from the antique show. I was tempted, yet again, to fill my car with more found treasures of antique silver, art, and furniture collected in this exquisite store. With great willpower, we departed for our last Aiken stop, another wonderful meal — lunch at Trio Bar and Kitchen. Locally owned Trio is located in The Alley off Laurens Street, where many breweries, taprooms, pubs, and hangouts fill daily with locals and tourists. The staff was all smiles as we slid into the booth near the friendly bar and enjoyed a bloody mary and mahi mahi fish tacos with house-made salsa. It was a fun way to wrap up our time in Aiken, and I definitely entered it in my notebook as a favorite. Aiken is certainly a thoroughbred community of people and horses — I will be back very soon!