There is a little known town in South Carolina called Aiken… unless of course you are a horse person and than you know Aiken all too well. Aiken is home to all things equestrian. It hosts steeplechase races, polo matches and horse shows. The Imperial Cup in March and the Holiday Cup in October draws 30,000 spectators to this “best small town of the South” so dubbed by Southern Living.
Being a horse person, I was anxious to see what all the hubbub was surrounding Aiken, so I checked myself into The Willcox. What I learned was that Aiken is so much more than horses. It’s the people! But hold that thought, as I want to introduce you to The Willcox.
The Willcox looks like a grand private residence situated amongst other beautiful homes and only a few minutes walk to downtown. As I walked up the steps past the stately white pillars, I opened the door into what can only be described as someone’s living room. The wood paneling, big leather and upholstered chairs around the stone fireplace along with magnificent drapes and paintings gave the feel of another era. I could immediately see why it was voted a top 50 hotel in the world.
Once I checked in, I went over to their intimate bar and sat down. I had heard that they have one of the best happy hours in town, and within a few minutes I could see why. I ordered up their signature drink called the Parisian and the next thing I knew, I had a gaggle of new friends. The scene was a cross between “Cheers” and “Friends.” Even John, the pianist, came over between sets to chat. By the end of the night, I had been invited to a house party for the following evening. Welcome to the people of Aiken.
Making my way to my room, I felt like I was walking the halls of a Southern plantation home. The doors even had actual keys! I turned the lock and my door swung open to a fairy tale room. I found myself staring at a huge four poster bed with a fluffy down comforter, fireplace with European fabric upholstered chairs on either side, plantation shuttered windows and a bathroom that was bigger than some hotel rooms. I stood for a while looking out the window watching patrons dressed in their polo jodhpurs and boots drift in and ensconced themselves on the veranda sipping a cold drink.
I awoke the next morning to sunlight streaming through the shutters and some commotion outside. To my amazement, there were three women on horseback drinking Mimosas. They had just come from a morning ride through Hitchcock Woods and stopped for a drink. Only in Aiken!
Breakfast at The Willcox is a treat. They have a buffet each morning but don’t expect the traditional big, sterile looking buffets. This one is set up with an intimate Southern flair. You can eat inside by the fireplace or outside by the pool. Their cinnamon rolls are the biggest I’ve ever seen and mouth watering to boot. The hotel also has a small restaurant that specializes in seasonal cooking and all from scratch. No processed or preserved foods allowed.
After eating all this, you can walk it off by strolling through town and ducking into all the shops, hiking in Hitchcock Woods or walking through Hopeland Gardens and enjoying the labyrinth there. That being said, you must stop at Betseys on the Corner for an old fashioned milkshake.
My time in Aiken was coming to a close but I did make time for a massage at the spa. Don’t be fooled by the size of the spa or the informal feel. I loved that it wasn’t big and fancy like a resort spa, as that would haven’t been in keeping with the overall feel of The Willcox.
Time to leave, Jeep packed and I did drive away thinking, “Yep, only in Aiken!”
Debbie Martinez is a Miami Dade resident and Travel Editor for The Florida Villager. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.