Aiken to Explore

Resurrection ferns climb an old oak at Hopelands Gardens near Aiken.

A quick 79-mile jaunt to Aiken will usher you into a past where luxury ruled the day. You can tour a classy town and see where wealthy industrialists spent their winters. Thus was Aiken once known as the Winter Colony. In Aiken you’ll find much to see and do. And should you desire you can check out a splendid hotel, the Wilcox Inn. None other than Sir Winston Churchill stayed there.

One Frederick S. Wilcox established this fine inn long ago in the last years of the 19th century. His inn became a haven for Yankees seeking a warmer clime. Today it’s a sumptuous setting with stonework and rich wood-paneled walls. In the Gilded Age of the 1920s and 1930s, Aiken was known as the “Winter Colony.” Every fall well-heeled northerners came by private railcar to Aiken to play polo, golf, race their thoroughbreds, hunt fox and socialize at high tea, musicales, balls and dinners.

The Wilcox, as I call it, was said to have had the first bathtub in the South connected with hidden plumbing. Over the years, Andy Williams and Bing Crosby came as did John Jacob Astor, Harold Vanderbilt and Evelyn Walsh McLean who owned the Hope diamond. Makeup queen Elizabeth Arden graced the hotel as well. As for Franklin D. Roosevelt, legend maintains that he rode his private train to the inn’s back door where he quietly slipped inside. In 1999, Robert Clark and I included the Wilcox Inn in our book, “Reflections of South Carolina.” Back in 1997 and 1998 when we were working on that book I never made it inside the Wilcox Inn. It took me some 17 years to finally do that. It will be much sooner when I return.

Use the Wilcox Inn as a base camp and go exploring. Aiken has a lot to offer. Nearby are Hopelands Gardens, a 14-acre estate garden, and Hitchcock Woods, one of the country’s largest urban forests. There’s a place called the Rye Patch too, a popular venue for weddings and parties.

Hopelands Gardens features a labyrinth where you can walk and think with a feeling of being lost yet found. It’s a wonderful place to meditate. The labyrinth opened April 17, 2007. It’s patterned after a 13th century design in Amiens Cathedral, France. Its 45 feet in diameter with brick pathways leading to a granite center.

Be sure to see the intersection of Whiskey Road and Easy Street where you’ll see one of the country’s most photographed road signs. Explore the sandy lanes left unpaved for the thoroughbred horses that walk them. And check out the Racing Hall of Fame.

Aiken is a beautiful town of live oaks, resurrection ferns, dogwoods, ivy and brick walls. Best of all it is an easy drive away.

If You Go …

Wilcox Inn:

Learn more about Tom Poland, a Southern writer, and his work at Email day-trip ideas to him at [email protected].

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