By Debi Lander
In the late 19th century, the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, Carnegies, Pulitzers, Morgans, and Astors epitomized America’s “Gilded Age.” These Captains of Industry financed the industrial age and established many non-profit organizations. The millionaires frequently gathered to party in mansions they built in prime areas along the coast — sprinkling luxuriant estates in Newport, R.I., “camps” in the Adirondack Mountains of New York, grand railroad resort hotels up and down the East Coast, a secretive compound in Jekyll Island, Ga., and a winter colony in Aiken, S.C.
I had the chance to explore Aiken on a recent road trip to South Carolina. My discovery of its treasures began with a stay at The Wilcox — a white-columned hotel. The “Queen of Aiken” has hosted Winston Churchill, Harold Vanderbilt, Elizabeth Arden, Joseph Pulitzer, the Duke of Windsor and according to local lore, Franklin D. Roosevelt and his special lady. Even if you don’t stay there, but I’d highly recommend you do so, check out the lobby and hallways and their historical photos and period pieces. A spirit of warmth and hospitality fills the corridors.
Aiken first achieved fame as a health retreat for those with breathing troubles. Coastal residents from Charleston would come to escape malaria and yellow fever. New York horsemen Eustis and Hitchcock bought their horses, along with their well-heeled friends from the north to extend the equestrian season. They laid the foundations for the city’s passion for riding, racing, foxhunting and polo. Today, there are more than 80 polo fields around Aiken.
I started exploring with a trolley tour that breezed me past captivating landmarks, homes and “Aiken cottages” (each with at least 22 rooms) on horse-friendly dirt roads. I heard named dropping tales of Winter Colony visitors like Evelyn Walsh McLean, the last known owner of the Hope Diamond, who sometimes placed it on the collar of her Great Dane. Other famous residents included Fred Astaire, who danced up and down the steps of the post office, and Andy Williams, the Moon River singer, who owned a nine-acre property with a 13-room house, a barn and stables, butler’s cottage, laundry house, carriage house, greenhouse and a children’s brick dollhouse.
The trolley tour stops at Hopelands Gardens for a meander through the peaceful park and the Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame, a two-story museum featuring memorabilia, plus a reference library for breeders.
Later, I drove to Flat Out Polo Farms to try my hand at arena polo. Owner Ken Cresswell gave me a polo lesson, but let’s just say this fast-paced sport was more than I could muster. Watching a game was thrilling.
Next day I toured Redcliffe Plantation State Historic Site, once the home of Henry Hammond, three generations of his descendants, and numerous African American families who worked as slaves and later as freemen and women. Hammond was a congressman, governor, and senator from South Carolina.
Both weekend evenings I attended a concert as part of the 10-year annual Joye in Aiken Festival. The shows bring famed NYC Juilliard students, faculty and alumni to Aiken for music, dance, and drama performances for the public and teach in the area school. I listened to a night of soulful jazz and an unexpectedly exciting organ concert by Grammy winner Paul Jacobs.
I missed Aiken’s Triple Crown, a three-week series of racing, steeplechase, polo and foxhunting events. Aiken ranks with Ocala and Louisville as one of the best horse towns in the country.
“It may be a small city, but they have as much history as Churchill Downs,” said my guide.
Aiken evokes the city’s opulent past but doesn’t’ require a Pulitzer’s purse to make for one grand getaway.
Visit www.bylandersea.com to read more of local travel writer Debi Lander’s stories and travel tips.
Photo courtesy Debi Lander.
Polo at Flat Out Polo Farms.