Aiken: Why you should visit South Carolina's hidden gem

Canoe or kayak the Edisto River, North America's longest free-flowing blackwater river, in Aiken State Park.
photo Horse statues dot the city of Aiken, considered the heart of Thoroughbred Country.

The South Carolina country-side is largely ignored by travelers, or viewed as just a means to get to destinations such as Charleston or nearby beaches. But that wasn't always the case.

The area has been an escape for wealthy Charleston residents since its founding, and a popular "winter colony" in the 1920s and 30s for New York's high society, who were attracted by its equestrian activities, such as polo and fox hunts.

That draw remains today - for those who know where to look. Aiken is a genteel Southern town located along Interstate 20 between Atlanta and Charleston, in the middle of what's known as Thoroughbred Country. Named for William Aiken, one of South Carolina's most prominent cotton merchants and president of the South Carolina Canal and Railroad Company, the town offers plenty of reasons to saddle up for the four-and-a-half-hour drive from Chattanooga.

What to do

Get a comprehensive introduction to this charming Southern town with the two-hour Aiken Trolley Tour, which departs from the Aiken Visitors Center and Train Museum on Saturdays at 10 a.m. Your guide will point out historic homes and churches and equestrian and Civil War sites. The tour includes stops at Hopelands Gardens, with its 14 acres under a canopy of ancient oaks and magnolias, and the Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame & Museum.

The ideal day for winter colonists consisted of three sports: polo in the morning, golf in the afternoon and a hunt in the evening. These continue to be among the popular activities in Aiken, an internationally renowned equestrian training center which has produced many national champions and Kentucky Derby winners.

Aiken's Triple Crown events, held annually for three consecutive Saturdays in March, kick off March 18 with the 75th annual Aiken Trials, followed by the Aiken Spring Steeplechase March 25 and ending with the 101st annual Aiken Horse Show in Hitchcock Woods March 31 through April 2.

Polo season is September-November and March-June, with tournament games played during the week and weekends, and club polo games held Sundays at 3 p.m. in downtown Aiken. For specific schedules, visit Hitchcock Woods, which at 2,000 acres is one of the largest urban forests in the United States, is located in Aiken County. Make your visit on horseback by scheduling a ride with Seahorse Stables, which offers rides October-April, or Rebel Ranch Horse Tours.

World-class golf can also be found nearby. The Augusta National Golf Club, home to the Masters golf tournament set for April 6-9 this year, is a half hour from Aiken. Though that's a private course, Aiken boasts five public courses: The River, Cedar Creek, Midland Valley and Aiken golf clubs and Houndslake Country Club.

Explore the longest free-flowing blackwater river in North America by paddling the Edisto River Canoe Trail in Aiken State Park. Or try your hand at fishing in the Savannah River, home to panfish, redbreast, bream, catfish, warmouth and yellow perch as well as largemouth bass, hybrid bass and crappie, and striped bass in the springtime.

Take in a performance or chamber concert during "Joye in Aiken," a weeklong celebration of the arts March 4-10 resulting from a partnership between the city and The Juilliard School.

Where to stay

The Inn at Rose Hill features charming rooms on an old Southern estate in downtown Aiken. A full breakfast is included.

Opened in 1898, The Willcox is a historic hotel built in the Colonial Revival style, featuring stately white pillars and rooms with four-poster beds, high ceilings, crown molding, period furnishings, marble baths and many with fireplaces. The hotel also boasts a fine restaurant, spa and seasonal saltwater pool. Service includes thoughtful touches, such as a cashmere-covered hot water bottle tucked into the sheets on cool nights, and pooches are welcome.

Where to Eat

Betsy's on the Corner makes a great spot for lunch or breakfast on Saturday mornings. The casual menu features burgers, milkshakes and homemade desserts in a '50's-style diner atmosphere.

New Moon Café is a coffee house with an eclectic atmosphere known for its brunch, baked goods, grits and crab bisque.

The Willcox's intimate restaurant features a varied menu served in an elegant dining room that oozes Southern charm, or you can enjoy cocktails or tapas in the club-style bar with live piano music playing in the background.