Among the cluster of hot spots that welcome chill-averse snowbirds this time of year exists one horse-friendly community that is often overlooked despite its turn-of-the-Century designation as the official Winter Colony. Aiken, South Carolina is a relatively quiet town (pop: 30,000) with deep equestrian roots, and unless one is an avid polo or three day eventing fan, it typically loses out to its more glamorous neighbors (Charleston and Savannah to the south, as well as Charlotte and Asheville to the north). The Aiken Winter Colony was established in the late 1800s by two avid horsemen from New England: Thomas Hitchcock, Sr., the “father” of American steeplechase, and William C. Whitney, a financier and investor in thoroughbreds. As a more temperate option for breeding and training racehorses, the town drew many prominent families from the Northern region of the country.
Today, Aiken continues to benefit from the equestrian sporting economy, and pays homage to the lifestyle of its earliest residents through the preservation of long standing professional flat and steeplechase racetracks, a corridor of farms on rolling knolls, horse-crossing intersections downtown, and historic equine-themed street signs.
Equestrian culture aside, Aiken is decorated by old plantation-style homes, iconic canopies of grand oak trees, a quaint downtown dotted with shops and restaurants, and a multitude of other touches that make it uniquely Southern. Plus, the added perk of being situated only thirty minutes from the Augusta, Ga airport means it’s easy to access. So while many Northerners succumb to the gravitational pull of Miami or Palm Beach (hey, we like the ocean, too!), we compiled an abbreviated visitors guide in the hopes that we’ll entice you to consider a long weekend in Aiken.
VISIT: The Hitchcock Woods
2,100 acres of pine forest for riders, hikers, joggers, and dog walkers, with 70 miles of sandy trails, and smack dab in the center of town. Pretty self-explanatory, right?
STAY: With The Locals
Many private farms rent out guest cottages, barn apartments, and hunt boxes, allowing you to wake up to a pasture view of grazing horses, immerse yourself in equestrian life, and receive an insider’s knowledge of the area.
IMBIBE: The Willcox Hotel
During the winter, this is the gathering spot for equestrians after a day of training or competing. The lobby lounge’s robust social scene is spurred on by two grand fireplaces, a very talented pianist, and the impression that you’re enjoying a cocktail the proper way, like your grandfather’s grandfather might have.
EAT: The Track Kitchen
Ask any ponyclubber what she wants to be when she grows up, and she’ll say a resident of Three Runs! Like a country club for horse lovers, this equestrian development features a clubhouse with a pool, jumping and dressage arenas, a cross-country field, fitness center, 30+ miles of trails, and several phases of home sites with plenty of room for ponies to romp.
PLAY: The Alley Taproom
For those who can’t make up their mind, The Alley Taproom features an interactive wall of nearly 50 brews and ciders, plus a few wines on tap (and a smart chip keeps track of the ounces consumed, since you probably won’t). An array of board games gives the bar a chummy, casual feel, then add a dose of classic southern hospitality and new friends can be made in no time.