In Aiken, South Carolina, polo matches, fox hunts, and horse races are the order of the day. Now a restored inn is giving outsiders entrée into an exclusive world.
I started coming to Aiken in the late 1980's, when my parents bought a house just off the Whiskey Road. The property came with a small (by Aiken's standards) stable, and it was close to the Hitchcock Woods, a 2,200-acre tract of public woodland. My father had retired several years before and wanted to spend the winter in a place warmer than New Jersey, where he could keep a few horses and the family could come to use them. I'd never heard of Aiken, but he insisted it was perfect.
Like my brother and sisters, I grew up riding. Some of my earliest memories are of horses—the burning smell of the hooves when the blacksmith shod them; my father's brightly colored first-place ribbons hanging on the dark varnished walls of the tack room. The shamans of my early childhood were skilled riders and handlers, adept in the art and mystery of horsemanship, who could communicate with the unfathomable animals around which so much of our family life revolved.
In the evening, when my father came home from work, he would ask, "Did you have a good ride today?" I would mumble something about it being okay but boring and change the subject. Although I liked to ride, I hated lessons, and I never wanted to be horsey. But on my first visit to Aiken, I rode in the Hitchcock Woods, following the trails through the trees, a haunting blend of low-country and upcountry vegetation: live oaks, thick with Spanish moss, growing near blooming mountain laurel. It was the best ride I have ever taken. When I came back to the barn and my father asked, "Did you have a good ride?" I said, "Yes, I had a very good ride."
Aiken is a kind of equestrian wonderland. Horses are, literally, everywhere—racehorses, show jumpers, hunters, polo ponies, carriage horses—and each type of horse has a distinct subculture attached to it. The town is full of the young training riders who "breeze" the racehorses (take them for their daily workout) in the early morning, and the hot walkers who cool off the polo ponies between chukkers, and the riders who come to Richard Hall's internationally famous riding school, and the thousands of hunt enthusiasts who arrive from all over the country during Hunt Week in mid-February, a time when the entire town seems to be caught in the grip of equine frenzy.
Aiken has been horsey since the 1890's, when a group of extremely wealthy Yankees—the heirs to great fortunes made in communications, railroads, and land speculation following the Civil War—discovered a place where the climate for riding was good (warm but not too hot) and the footing ideal (a soft, sandy clay with no sharp stones in it, so horses can be exercised unshod). The Winter Colony, as the group came to be known, was led by Thomas and Louise Hitchcock, and included Whitneys, Iselins, Phippses, Vanderbilts, Mellons, and Astors. By the early 20th century, they had made the town one of the most celebrated sporting resorts in the country.
Aiken has changed since the days of the Winter Colony. Most notably, in the 1950's, the federal government, working with DuPont, built the Savannah River Plant, a plutonium-producing facility not far from town, and it brought thousands of jobs along with lots of malls and fast-food joints and highways. But nearly all the new development is on the south side of town, miles from the old Aiken, with its tree-lined parkways, stately Winter Colony mansions, public gardens, and shops and restaurants clustered around the main drag, Laurens Street. And Aiken is still the domain of an exclusive group of people for whom riding is more than a pastime; it is a source of character and moral fiber.
Last spring, I noticed that in addition to the usual sports talk in my parents' circle—which good-looking two-year-old filly was favored in the Aiken Trials, whether Tiger Riviere's boy might win the court tennis championship—there was a lot of talk about the Willcox, a recently reopened Winter Colony hotel. The white Colonial-style building, with its row of tall pillars out front, had been the site of many a Colony ball. It closed in the 1950's, and in subsequent years several different owners have operated it, without much success. Since the early eighties the place had been boarded up, a spooky memento of Aiken's glorious past.
Several years ago David and Christie Garrett visited Aiken, discovered that the Willcox was for sale, and, after researching the town's history, bought the hotel. The Garretts operate two properties in New York's Adirondacks region, the Lake Placid Lodge and the Point, which is built on the site of William Avery Rockefeller's great camp, Wonundra. They are attracted to properties that tell stories from the early days of the American leisure class—that crucial period in the formation of the nation's high-society manners, dating roughly from 1875 to 1920, when the Winter Colony was at the peak of its influence. Just as one can go up to the Point in the summertime and feel like a Rockefeller, so one could come down to the Willcox in the wintertime and feel like a Hitchcock.
Generally speaking, the people who still come to Aiken in Winter Colony style—with strings of ponies, hunters, dogs, and staff—welcomed the Willcox. The fact that the Garretts, in restoring the hotel, had accommodated the watchful Aiken Historic Preservation Commission on every point won over most of the old guard. There was a certain amount of umbrage taken when the Garretts announced, in an early prospectus for the hotel, that they would offer access to Aiken's court tennis facilities (a private, members-only club), but apart from that slip the natives seemed pleased to have a place where their own Winter Colony fantasies could be rendered. ("It would be soterrific if we could count on the Willcox for entertaining," I was told by one of the contemporary colonists, in that terribly serious way a hostess discusses entertaining.) It seems to me that there is almost always a certain amount of self-invention involved in appearing to be the real thing, and when new illusionists come along who are as skillful as the Garretts, they're embraced.
Shortly after I arrived on my most recent visit to Aiken, I went to take a look at the Willcox. A wonderful magnolia tree grows out front and gives shade to the rocking chairs that line the porch. The grounds are not large; there isn't room for a tennis court or a swimming pool. There are train tracks in a 40-foot-deep "cut" at the back of the hotel—a long trench dug by slaves so that trains could make the grade into town. (Some people say Franklin Delano Roosevelt parked a private train there and used a secret door into the Willcox.) Trains don't stop in the cut anymore, and it is overgrown and forlorn-looking—the romantic setting of a short novel about the Willcox, The Secret of Telfair Inn, by Idella Bodie, for sale in the gift shop.
Inside, the lobby is grand, an evocation of the great room in an English country house. The walls are covered in the original dark curly-pine paneling, and there are enormous fireplaces at either end that the staff keeps blazing throughout the day. This room, like all the rooms in the hotel, was designed by Christie Garrett, in collaboration with San Francisco-based designer Joszi Meskan, and the pieces in it are a mix of formal but comfortable sofas and chairs—including an "Aiken sofa," with a high back and sides to keep in warmth—mostly upholstered in burgundy, rose, bronze, and green.
The Willcox has 22 guest rooms (from $250 to $850 a night), a day spa, and a dining room, which has a much more sophisticated menu than the steaks and burgers you'll find at most Aiken restaurants. Many guests may find it enough to sit on the porch of the hotel, admiring the oak trees that arch overhead and enjoying the small-town feel of the place. If one wishes to inhabit the Winter Colony persona more deeply and try something horsey, the Willcox will arrange a horse-drawn-carriage picnic in the woods, or riding lessons. The polo matches and horse races are open to spectators, and two local stables will rent horses to experienced riders, but most of Aiken's remaining institutions are off-limits: you can't play golf at the Palmetto Golf Club unless a member invites you, and while there are two very active hunts—the Aiken Hounds, the second-oldest hunt club in the country, and the Belle Meade Hunt—in order to participate you have to know someone in the clubs. And you need a horse.
When Aiken was founded, in 1835, it was a stop on the longest regularly scheduled railway line in the country, from Charleston to Hamburg, South Carolina. Wealthy planters from Charleston built summerhouses in Aiken. The town, being situated in the hilly country between the Savannah and Edisto rivers, was mostly free of the heat and malaria that plagued the low country. Sherman did not burn Aiken—his army was routed on the outskirts by Major General Joe Wheeler's ragged militia, a storied event that is re-enacted each year, in late February.
After the war, Aiken developed a reputation as a health resort, which is what brought a sickly little girl named Louise Eustis (known as Loulie) to town in 1877. Loulie's parents had supported the Confederacy; during the war her father, George Eustis, a congressman from New Orleans, served in the Confederate embassy in Paris. Loulie's mother and father both died abroad shortly after the war, and the young orphan's grandfather, W. W. Corcoran, whose immense fortune was based on banking, arranged for her to be raised in New Orleans by her aunt, Celestine, a prominent social figure there. When Loulie showed signs of consumption (which is what killed her father), Tante, as she called Celestine, took her to Aiken for the healthful air.
Loulie fell in love with Aiken, learned to ride, and returned each year for an extended stay. Always fearless and unconventional, she eschewed the demure sidesaddle riding fashion of the day and became the first woman of her class to insist on riding astride. When she was 18, her grandfather Corcoran settled a fortune on her, and Loulie was brought to New York City to make her debut. There she met young Tommy Hitchcock, the polo-playing scion of a New York banking family, whom she married in 1891.
Hitchcock and his neighbors on the north shore of Long Island were looking for a place to ride, hunt, and play polo during the winter months, and Loulie insisted on showing Aiken to her new husband. Hitchcock realized that the town was exactly what he was looking for. The couple bought a house from the Legares, a prominent low-country family—beginning the unique marriage of Southern and Northern notions of aristocracy that is part of Aiken's style—and they recruited some of their New York friends to come down South with them. William Whitney bought many of the racing and polo facilities, as well as a residence on Easy Street called Joye Cottage—an all-white, Neoclassical pleasure palace that in recent years was restored by the authors Gregory White Smith and Steve Naifeh, who won the Pulitzer Prize for their biography of Jackson Pollock; the house became the subject of their book On a Street Called Easy, in a Cottage Called Joye.
The ideal of the Winter Colony was to play three sports a day—polo in the morning, followed by a game of golf, and then a hunt late in the day, preferably after dark, when the riding was at its most hazardous. Both the men and the women, having inherited extraordinarily large fortunes from their daring and rapacious ancestors, seemed determined to amuse themselves in a life-threatening manner, to prove that leisure was just as challenging as work. Too rich to work, but too active and restless to sit still, they developed in Aiken a hectic style of leisure that became a preppy convention, and that Americans could see in the Kennebunkport vacations of George Bush the first—especially those high-speed golf outings.
For relaxation, the colonists shot quail, played bridge, and entertained one another with lavish horse-drawn picnics catered by a local German family named Willcox. They built squash courts in their houses, and created their own court tennis facility (one of the few in the country) and the Palmetto Golf Club (Stanford White designed the clubhouse). However, in its choice of sports the Winter Colony seems to have reflected the conviction Thomas Jefferson once put into a letter to a friend, that "games played with the ball...stamp no character on the mind." When the winter ended, they packed up their playthings and took their private railcars back home to the hunts and polo fields of Long Island.
In 1930, Louise Eustis Hitchcock, then 65, was featured on the cover of Time magazine—a smiling, vital-looking woman with bobbed hair, wearing a fedora and a monocle around her neck, whom the magazine, in an article about the prospects of the U.S. team, called "polo's matriarch." She continued to ride in hunts, even though by then she could hardly see (her grandchildren would stand by jumps in the woods and yell "Jump, Gran!" as her horse approached). On the day after Christmas, 1933, while leading a hunt, she fell and broke her neck in the woods. She is buried at the edge of the Hitchcocks' hunting preserve, which is now the Hitchcock Woods. Upon her death, the London Times noted in its obituary that "she was one of that small band of sportsmen who have justified sport as a way of life and a means to the end of character." To this day, Louise Hitchcock remains the spirit of Aiken, and it's not surprising that many riders still see her in the woods, a lone horsewoman soaring over the jumps and disappearing into the Spanish moss and the mountain laurel.
One night during my most recent visit to Aiken, I organized a small party at the Willcox—a test to see how well the hotel might serve as a stage on which a modern interpretation of the Winter Colony could be played. Among the guests were the Joye Cottage authors, Steve Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, as well as Latham and Paddy Ann Burns, who come from Toronto each winter. The Willcox's capable general manager, Libby Cook, a native of the South, made all the arrangements: drinks in the Roosevelt Suite, followed by dinner downstairs.
During the drinks portion of the evening, I followed Paddy Ann as she inspected the Roosevelt Suite—two huge rooms, a sensational bathroom, and a 52-foot-long balcony. P.A., as her friends call her, is not a Master of the Aiken Hounds, but she is one of the hunt's boldest riders, and every time I catch a glimpse of her flashing over the jumps like a crazy person, I wonder if I've actually seen the spirit of Loulie Hitchcock. P.A. is also a charming and generous hostess, who every year throws a party in her pink hacienda-style house on Easy Street for all riders who attend Hunt Week.
The Willcox's bedrooms, like its public rooms, have an eclectic mix of furniture, much of which comes from antiques shops around Aiken, complemented by Axminster carpets, Japanese wall coverings, and a refreshing lack of chintz. It's horsey, but not overbearingly so. The bathrooms have Kohler sinks and deep tubs with Harden fixtures, as well as remarkably soft towels and an elaborate assortment of bath gels, face creams, soaps, and shampoos. P.A. was nonplussed by this array. "Let me tell you something, honey," she said. "If I'm the type of woman who can afford to spend eight-fifty a night for a room, I travel with my own face cream."
We proceeded downstairs to dinner. The food was excellent. When the chef, Bob Conte, came out to ask how we had enjoyed our meal, the pear and rosemary risotto and seared quail breasts, along with the potato-wrapped Chilean sea bass, got the highest marks. The "intermezzo," a sorbet palate cleanser between courses, was a nice touch, but P.A. thought it should be called the "check"—a riding expression for the breather given to hounds and horses during a hunt. "Intermezzo isn't going to cut it in Aiken," she said.
After dinner, I suggested we linger by the fire, but, in the true spirit of Aiken, everyone had to go home—there was an early hunt. Paddy Ann and her husband walked into the warm spring evening.
"Have a good ride," I called out.
The closest airport to Aiken is in Augusta, Georgia, a 20-minute drive away; US Airways flies there from Charlotte, Delta from Atlanta. Columbia, South Carolina, an hour's drive, has more direct flights.
WHERE TO STAY
Willcox Inn DOUBLES FROM $250; DINNER FOR TWO $80; 100 COLLETON AVE.; 877/648-2200 OR 803/648-1898; www.thewillcox.com
Sandhurst Estate Bed & Breakfast Inn A 10-room B&B in a 19th-century white-columned mansion next door to Hopeland Gardens. DOUBLES FROM $125; 215 DUPREE PLACE; 803/642-9259 www.sandhurstestate.com
WHERE TO EAT
Race Track Kitchen Breakfast-only restaurant near the racetrack; many of the jockeys eat here between "sets." Excellent place to pick up local color, gossip, and racing tips. BREAKFAST FOR TWO $10; 20 MEAD AVE.; 803/641-9628
Malia's Known for its filling salads; lunch daily. LUNCH FOR TWO $20; 120 LAURENS ST. S.W.; 803/643-3086
West Side Bowery Downtown restaurant with an informal bar menu. DINNER FOR TWO $35; 151 BEE LANE; 803/648-2900
Linda's Bistro Steaks and seafood from chef-owner Linda Rooney. DINNER FOR TWO $60; 210 THE ALLEY; 803/648-4853
No. 10 Downing Street Almond-crusted sea bass and rack of lamb served in a dignified landmark building. DINNER FOR TWO $56; 241 LAURENS ST. S.W.; 803/642-9062
WHERE TO SHOP
Clothes Cottage at Chesterfield Court Casual and formal clothing in a handsome, restored downtown house. 120 CHESTERFIELD ST. S.; 803/648-7700
Southern Comfort Luxury bed and bath linens and a wide variety of robes and hostess gowns. 335 PARK AVE. S.W.; 803/648-5200
Barbara Sue Brodie Needleworks The source of great needlepoint canvases and knitting patterns, and the place to come for lessons. Get your needlepoint hunting scenes here. 127 LAURENS ST. S.W.; 803/644-0990
Curiosity Shop Everything British, from Scottish kilts to Barbour jackets to books. They'll give you a cup of tea when you've finished shopping. 158 LAURENS ST. S.W.; 803/644-0004
York Cottage Antiques Furniture, porcelain, silver, and crystal, often on consignment from local estates. 409 HAYNE AVE.; 803/642-9524
Plum Pudding Kitchen shop with expensive cooking equipment, as well as serving dishes. 101 LAURENS ST. N.W.; 803/644-4600
Lionel Smith Ltd. An old-time haberdashery. 132 LAURENS ST. S.W.; 803/648-2100
Aiken Saddlery & Supply For all things horsey. 1044 E. PINE LOG RD.; 803/649-6583
WHAT TO SEE AND DO
Hitchcock Woods A 2,200-acre woodland near the center of town that's laced with paths for riding horses, driving carriages, or walking. Advance planning is needed to take a carriage drive or horseback ride here. Carriage tours are given by Jean-Paul Gautier (352/895-1957), an expert who also gives lessons in driving one or two horses. Experienced riders can rent horses from Jerry Bernard (803/648-3091) and Red Barn Stables (803/641-6680); the latter gives lessons to beginners. The Aiken Fox Hunt meets in the woods three days a week in winter; onlookers are welcome, but you may not join the hunt without an invitation.
Hopeland Gardens The former estate of Oliver Iselin, now a 14-acre public park in the heart of Aiken. Outdoor concerts are held on Monday evenings from May through August. Also on-site is the Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame, worth a visit for a nostalgic look at the past. 100 DUPREE PLACE; 803/642-7631
Aiken Training Track Watch the young racehorses being "breezed" each morning from 7 to 9 a.m.Aiken's Triple Crown is scheduled on three successive Saturdays in March; all races are open to the public.
Whitney Field Polo matches take place here on Sunday afternoons from March to July and from September to Thanksgiving. Polo lessons are available in the spring.
Aiken Golf Club Most of the town's clubs require membership or introduction by a member, but you can play here, with a reservation. 803/649-6029
Aiken County Historical Museum Thirty rooms of exhibits in a Winter Colony mansion. 433 NEWBERRY ST.; 803/642-2015