By Doc Lawrence -
AIKEN, South Carolina – Once the home of the Hope Diamond, this lovely city is known for thoroughbred horses and all sorts of stylish equestrian competition. Southern hospitality originated somewhere and after a few days in Aiken, there is a feeling that perhaps this easy-going, elegant city, gave birth to gentle living and good manners.
In the late 19th century, Aiken gained fame as a wintering spot for wealthy people from the Northeast with names like Vanderbilt, Astor and Whitney. Their generosity exemplifies noblesse oblige and is evidenced today in thoroughbred horse breeding, training and racing, architecture, cultural heritage and environmental preservation.
Prancing racing horses (they have the right-of way-here) pass historic mansions with flower-filled gardens. Dominating downtown Aiken is The Willcox. Built in the late 19th century for Gilded Age dandies, the luxury hotel retains its splendor, all tempered with Southern charm and modern amenities. Old wood, polished brass, bright crystal and original art mirror the elevated cuisine, fine wine and generously poured cocktails in the lobby bar. The large front porch offers the nap you have yet to enjoy. The Willcox has a wonderful history, attracting guests like Winston Churchill, Elizabeth Arden and Franklin Roosevelt. Local lore includes a story that the Prince of Wales was turned away during the Masters Tournament because no room was available.
Aiken’s Rose Hill mansion occupies a city block. The architecture is high-fashioned Shingle-Style Dutch Colonial. A regional treasure, Rose Hill sits above the city and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Among the largest urban forests in the nation, Hitchcock Woods encompasses 2,100 acres of forestland resources. Fully accessible and well maintained, this longleaf pine forest has retained its natural character and cultural heritage and is an essential part of the Aiken lifestyle. Equestrians and hikers join dog walkers, and joggers along the 70 miles of sandy trails.
Dining showcases Aiken’s diversity. The Red Pepper offers casual dining where the shrimp and grits are good interpretations of Low Country authenticity. Live music is regularly featured. Breakfast has to be special to earn raves. With a name inspired by the nearby dirt track where thoroughbred horses are exercised, The Track Kitchen is a laid-back breakfast institution. Wife and husband team Carol and Pockets Carter have a loyal following ranging from billionaires and sheiks to struggling journalists who come here for a made to order genuine Southern breakfast. The bacon is baked, served with properly prepared grits, eggs and fluffy pancakes. Coffee is self-service with unlimited refills.
Downtown Aiken’s Prime Steakhouse combines the menu of a big city restaurant with Southern culinary influences. There are three constants here: fork-tender beef, an impressive wine list and trained servers who, as they say in New York, “get the job done.” The bar serves only premium drinks, making my order of Jack Daniel’s served neat quite easy.
LaDolce provides Aiken with a glimpse of Europe. A cozy tea room and very popular bakery, LaDolce offers a tutorial tea tasting conducted by the eloquent and effervescent Lady Kelly MacVean, a Certified Tea Master. Tea is part of the celebration of life and LaDolce adds to the grandeur of the gourmet experience.
The Houndslake Guest House is a comfortable 30-room inn with spectacular golf course views. Located in the heart of one of Aiken’s finest country club communities, the food and drinks are wonderful, emblematic of Aiken’s many quality choices. The langiappe is special: good conversation with the engaging proprietor, Peggy Penland.
The annual Julliard in Aiken Festival welcomes spring. In addition to classical music, Juilliard has a very prestigious Jazz program, turning out some distinguished alums like Jazz greats Wynton Marsalis, Chick Corea, Tito Puente and Christian McBride who rank musically with other Julliard graduates like Academy Award winning composer John Williams and classical pianist Van Cliburn. The Julliard in Aiken Festival is firmly established as one of the most impressive, mutually beneficial relationships in the country.
This year’s schedule featured an evening performance at the Green Boundary Club by the Julliard Jazz Artists Diploma Ensemble, composed of Julliard’s most advanced jazz musicians. Their concert included songs by Hoagie Carmichael and some selections inspired memories of the Dave Brubeck Quartet.
The Juilliard in Aiken Performing Arts Festival and Outreach Program is the only partnership of its kind maintained by Juilliard anywhere in the world. The Festival began with an extraordinary gift to Juilliard by two Pulitzer Prize-winning authors, Aiken residents Gregory White Smith and Steven Naifeh, who bequeathed the use of their mansion, Joye Cottage, to the school.
Both Evalyn Walsh McLean, the Washington DC socialite and her Hope Diamond are no longer here. But local leaders like Aiken’s visionary mayor, Fred Cavanaugh, an enthusiastic supporter of Aiken’s growing attractiveness to visitors, mean more than jewelry for the continued vitality of this beautiful piece of paradise.
Tourism’s trajectory is soaring in Aiken. Offer excellence and people will come. The truly lucky ones will stay.