Stay, Play, Eat in Aiken, South Carolina - The Travel 100 (2022)

Just one of the many horses, real and fake, we spotted in Aiken, South Carolina.

I resisted for several miles, but finally hit the throttle and zipped up the hill, gliding past the bright green golf course interspersed with beautifully landscaped homes. We were on the Pedego Aiken Bike Tour and after pedaling over miles of relatively flat terrain, I engaged my e-bike to keep up with the others, despite the fact I could have used a bit more calorie-burning cycling after the yummy (boozy) milkshake we had for lunch.

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We had a delightful getaway in Aiken, South Carolina, staying in historic inns, exploring the vibrant downtown and for my husband, Chris, discovering his new favorite seafood restaurant.

He also caught up with someone he hadn’t seen in more than 40 years, since they shared some wild teenage adventures. But more on that later. First, a bit more about Aiken, South Carolina, and why it’s still a great place to visit decades after it first became a popular winter getaway for wealthy families.

A Quick History of Aiken

Wander around Aiken for just a few minutes and it’s obvious you’re in horse country. You’ll find colorful horse murals painted on brick walls, elaborately painted horse statues throughout the city and painted horse heads on street signs.

The city is named for William Aiken, president of a railroad company that helped build what was then the longest railroad in the world – 136 miles long. With a reputation as a health resort, mild climate and accessibility by rail, Aiken became a popular winter colony for families from the Northeast, including members of the Vanderbilt, Rockefeller and Astor families.

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Polo was introduced – the city is still known as the Polo Capital of the World – and the mild weather attracted horse trainers to come for spring training. Aiken has the reputation as one of the best places in the world to train horses and is famous for breeding thoroughbreds for steeplechase and flat racing.

The town grew dramatically when the Savannah River Site was built in the early 1950s to produce materials for the construction of nuclear weapons. It remains the city’s largest employer.

With a population of around 31,000, Aiken is about 2.5 hours from both Atlanta, Georgia, and Charleston, South Carolina. The closest airport is in Augusta, Georgia, about 20 miles away.

Where to Stay in Aiken, South Carolina

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The Willcox We timed our trip to be able to stay at this historic inn and it was worth it. From the gorgeous white-columned exterior to the elegant rooms and fantastic restaurant, this award-winning inn has it all for a memorable stay.

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Of course any property that greets me with a glass of Champagne is already well on its way to winning my heart. The paneled lobby area is cozy with fireplaces on either end and plenty of comfortable seating, wood paneled bar and live music several nights a week.

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While I appreciate the convenience of plastic key cards, I was charmed by our big gold metal key for our room.

The guest rooms are decorated with period antiques, massively comfortable beds and many of them have fireplaces. Much to my delight, our room also had two items that are rapidly disappearing from hotels – a bathtub and shower cap.

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In an act of brilliant marketing that I haven’t experienced before, there was a sample of a product in the bathroom, a face primer with SPF 30. I had forgotten my face sunscreen so this was perfect. Of course I ordered more before we left the hotel.

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We also had an upholstered built-in bench by the window and a small writing desk.

The Willcox, which dates back to 1898, has a salon and spa with body, hair and nail treatments. The outdoor pool is beautiful, a perfect place to relax or enjoy an adult beverage under one of the poolside canopies.

The pool was the setting for my husband to reconnect with Peggy Penland, a friend from his teenage years. Chris had dated her friend briefly when he was 16 after meeting her on a beach. He and Peggy hadn’t seen each other or spoken since. After we planned our visit to Aiken, Chris got on Facebook and connected with her.

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If this seems unusual to you, you haven’t met my husband. He’s known for reconnecting with people all over the country. Haven’t spoken for 50 years? Doesn’t matter! I’ve gotten to meet some of his boarding school buddies in places that include Montana, Chattanooga, San Francisco and Washington D.C. And I got to meet Peggy later in our visit.

We dined at The Willcox that night, as one of my favorite things is to have a lovely dinner then just walk up the stairs or take the elevator to bed. And our dinner was fabulous. I ordered a filet, perfectly cooked, and my husband Chris got a trout special that came with black beans and guacamole. Both where delicious.

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Breakfast is included with a stay here and it was equally delicious. Several items were available for pickup at a table and you could also order from the menu.

Much of Aiken is walkable and we were able to get just about anywhere we wanted to go by foot during our stay.

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Rose Hill. Another historic property that also opened in 1898, Rose Hill was recently purchased by Elizabeth Smith and her husband Andrew Hobbes.

Each of the eight guestrooms is unique in this large Dutch Colonial-style home. Our room, previously a screened-in porch, had been renovated and had a private bathroom added. We loved our spacious suite with a fireplace and large bathroom.

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The hotel, which was built as a private home, is on a full city block with close to five acres, and includes two restaurants. We enjoyed a drink in the cozy wood-paneled bar.

Other places to stay in Aiken

The Inn at Houndslake. Chris’s friend, Peggy, owns this 30-room inn at Houndslake Country Club. Guests enjoy membership privileges at the club, which has a 27-hole championship golf course, tennis courts and Olympic-sized pool.

Carriage House Inn. This elegant downtown hotel has been expanded to 37 guest rooms and suites, some with kitchens, in three buildings. Guests enjoy complimentary hot breakfast.

Where to Eat

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The Willcox Inn. As mentioned above, we loved the food at The Willcox Inn. Sunday brunch is also popular here.

Rose Hill. This historic inn has The Stables Restaurant, serving pub fare Thursday through Sunday, and the fine dining restaurant Sheffield’s, open daily.

Betsy’s Round the Corner. Enjoy fried green tomatoes, sandwiches, soups and daily specials like meatloaf or chicken tenders at this fun diner downtown. We loved our Reuben sandwich and grilled salmon sandwich, with onion rings of course. When Chris saw the boozy shakes on the menu, I knew we’d be ordering one.

He opted for the Mocha Me Dizzy with coffee liqueur, coffee ice cream and chocolate syrup and it was yummy, and thankfully not too boozy considering our afternoon activity of bike riding.

Track Kitchen. Pour yourself some coffee and settle in for breakfast with the locals at this no-frills historic diner opened in 1957.

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Palmetto Seafood Bar & Grill. Chris had already made up his mind to return to Aiken, but the return visit has been moved up after dining here. He was in his happy place when we dined at this fantastic seafood house.

There’s nothing fancy about it, but the food was fantastic. Chris ate his weight in oysters while I downed my share of fried shrimp. If you are a seafood lover, make it a goal to dine here at least once.

We had dinner with Peggy and her husband, Brendan Gilligan, an Irishman who owns Foxchase Stable. We got the sense they know just about everyone and everything that happens in Aiken.

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We received these recommendations for our return: The Alley, Malia’s and Solo Vino.

Things to Do in Aiken, South Carolina

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Pedego Aiken Bike Tour. This historic bike tour was our favorite thing to do in Aiken. Our guide took us to several gorgeous areas of the city, filling us in on the history of the area and even where the singer/songwriter Jesse Colin Young lives.

We rode past bright green golf courses, gorgeous homes and through part of the horse country where the roads are unpaved as the dirt roads are better for the horses’ hooves. The tour lasts about 2.5 hours, with several stops to learn about the area.

Although we covered several miles, the tour is appropriate for any level of bike rider as the e-bikes will help power you if you get tired of pedaling.

Hopelands Gardens. We walked to these gardens from The Willcox and enjoyed strolling through the landscaped areas. We also visited the Aiken Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame and Museum, a small museum housed in the former carriage house and stables.

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Other museums in Aiken include the Aiken County Historical Museum, Savannah River Site Museum and The Train Museum.

Hitchcock Woods. Neither our schedule nor the weather were conducive to our spending as much time hiking the paths in these 2,100-acre woods. But we did stop during our bike tour and learn a bit more about the 70 miles of hiking trails.

Amp The Alley. Lined with shops and restaurants, The Alley is fun to visit any time, but Thursday nights are especially lively with live music and guests enjoying outdoor dining at the restaurants.

Aiken County Farmers Market. Vendors sell crafts, produce, meat and other products at this long-running market on Tuesday and Saturday mornings.

Dupont Planetarium and RPSEC Observatory. This 45-seat planetarium has shows open to the public every Saturday.

Aiken State Park. This 1000-acre park has four lakes, river swamp and a blackwater river, great for canoeing, camping, fishing and hiking.

For more on Aiken, see Visit Aiken.

– Jan Schroder, Editor-in-chief

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