Charmed by Southern hospitality? Impressed by a strong sense of history and community? Enthralled by all things of nature? Like horses? If you answered "Yes" to any or all of these questions, then take a long weekend (or even a full week) trip to Aiken, South Carolina. You will be seduced by all this small town of about 29,000 has to offer.
Historic Downtown Aiken -- Drive down Richland Avenue and marvel at the trees, shrubs and flowers all in full spring bloom in the wide medians between both directions of traffic. Park on Laurens Street SW and window shop along both sides of the street. There's something for every interest included among the locally owned shops on just this street- bakeries (one just for pets), restaurants, cafes, a brewpub, a candy store, furniture design stores, unique clothing stores, antique shops, a quilt shop, an all-things-equine store, gift stores and an awesome T-shirt shop. For lunch stop in at Betsy's On the Corner (corner of Laurens and Barnwell). Don't forget to order from one of the 20+ flavors of ice cream for dessert (yum!).
Aiken Center for the Arts -- After lunch at Betsy's, burn off a few of those calories by crossing to the other side of Laurens and walking down the block to this impressive local museum and it's shop. Relax and enjoy the art, created by local and regional artists, in the various museum galleries both upstairs and down. Stop at the museum's shop on your way out and select a reasonably priced souvenir from among the varied selection of photographs, multicolored glass ornaments, original paintings, jewelry and cards created by the local Aiken area talent.
Aiken Polo Match -- Check out Aiken's Polo Club website at www.aikenpolo.org for their weekend practice and competitive game schedules and go watch a polo match. To reach either the Whitney or Powderhouse polo fields (off SC Hwy 19/Whiskey Road) take care and travel slowly over the moderately rutted red clay roads. Keep an eye out for horses being ridden on these clay roads during your travels. If meeting a rider, common courtesy dictates to (please) slow down and stay as far to the right as possible.
Aiken Thoroughbred (TB) Racing Hall of Fame and Museum -- Located in a former carriage house and stables on the grounds of Hopelands Gardens (also off SC Hwy 19/Whiskey Road) since 1977, this museum highlights the lives and racing accomplishments of 39 champion horses that trained at the local Aiken Training track. Ever heard of the racing champion Seabiscuit? He's represented here since his trainer, Tom Smith, trained at Aiken. Some of the 39 champions of the Aiken Hall of Fame include Tom Fool, Stage Door Johnny, Pleasant Colony and his daughter Pleasant Stage as well as the legendary Swale. Ask Aiken native Museum Curator Lisa Hall about the legend of War Admiral's son Blue Peter and the tree associated with him at the nearby Aiken Training Track. A horse enthusiast's heavenly afternoon of TB racing nirvana!
Hopelands Gardens -- Behind the tall serpentine red brick wall along Whiskey Road to the east and Dupree Place to the north hides the 20+ acres of Aiken's premier location for serene, natural beauty. Delicate floral aromas of roses, camellias and magnolias tickle the nose. Listen to the songbirds signing their melodies against a backdrop of water splashing among the fountains. Gaze in awe at the majestic splendor of the huge old oak trees spreading their limbs as if reaching for the sky. Take a lunchtime picnic and sit along one of the many benches and indulge both body and soul with the sights and sounds of Hopelands!
Hitchcock Woods -- Bring your best pair of walking shoes or riding boots and helmet to explore the largest privately owned forest situated within a US city (yes, it's an even bigger area than NYC Central Park!). This 2100 acre wooded preserve boasts 70 miles of trails for horseback riding, walking(with or without dogs) or jogging -- however no bicycles allowed!!
On the Trail of Painted Ponies -- Find as many of the life sized painted horses, created as part of a 2003 Aiken public art project, as you can. Some are easily spotted within the historic downtown area. Did you find Magnolia Mare, Stonerside or Have Sum Fun out at Hopelands Gardens? Keep looking...
South Boundary Street Oak Canopy -- Take a short detour off Whiskey Road and leisurely (not too fast) drive down South Boundary Street. Marvel at the mile long stretch where the Southern live oak trees, lining both sides of the road, have grown into intertwined limbs overhanging above to create a green leafy canopy. No wonder the locals call this street "The Avenue of Oaks". It's definitely worth stopping for a photo op!
Early morning at Aiken Training Track -- Thrill to the commanding sound of equine power as you feel the horses hooves pounding around the sandy track in the early morning mist! Revel in their fluid, graceful strength as you watch the horses quickly cover ground, increasing the length of each stride, as they bound further around the white wooden railed track and pass you by in the blink of an eye. After such a glorious start to the day if you need yet more to prod you into motion visit the Track Kitchen for breakfast,just a few short blocks from the track on Mead Avenue, and listen as the local horse people get their day started too!