As early spring adventures go, Aiken, South Carolina and Augusta, Georgia- river sisters under the Southern sun- present curiosities that are entertaining and remarkable. Augusta is known for its medical and military infrastructure and Aiken, not without an agricultural foundation, is also strong in nuclear engineering, design construction and industrial supplies. Yet no one would think of these things first. Most people know them for their long histories and signature recreational pursuits- golf and equestrian activities. Now there are eco tours, boat expedictions and great restaurants to complement the classics.
The alleys off Whiskey Road in Aiken run alongside pristine paddocks and stables behind the manicured lawns of fine homes- really just sandy trails where horse training takes place. There are times during the year when the horses may outnumber the people, it is said.
The great variety of horse disciplines on display in Aiken, is impressive. Everything from combined driving events and horse shows to polo and cutting horse competitions, may be found when you travel east on U.S. 78. Equestrian events draw thousands of visitors each year and spring heralds the Aiken Triple Crown- consecutive Saturdays when racing, steeple chase and polo commence. Steeplechase events, dramatic tests of speed and endurance for hoses, draw roughly 30,000 spectators each spring.
Other things to do include a visit to Hopelands Gardens, a 14-acre garden property, lush with azaleas. The gardens were established on the estate of Hope Iselin, a New Yorker whose family wintered in Aiken during the late 1800s. Mrs. Iselin kept racing stables into her 90s and there is a small Thoroughbred museum on the property.
Nearby sites include the elite Palmetto Golf Club- private, although for $225 per round those who plan ahead can play here during the Augusta National Tournament.
The best place to stay is at The Willcox, a white-columned mansion now serving as a boutique hotel with 22 rooms. However, you may want to avoid Masters week since it is usually booked two years in advance.
Aiken’s bustling little downtown is sure to charm, from delightful olive oil tasting shops like High Country Olive Oil to the classic hardware store. For a formal yet unpretentious dining experience, visit Malia’s for nouveaux American cuisine. Aiken also has a thriving community theater group and a railroad museum.
Back across the Savannah River in Georgia’s second oldest city, visitors may begin at the Augusta Museum of History and Visitor Center. Take a trolley tour to get an overview of sites like the James Brown Statue of the Boyhood Home of Woodrow Wilson.
SouthStar Trolley Tours at 2451 Wheeless Road offers the classic Augusta Ghost Trolley Tour and a new next year will initiate a culinary tour called “Taste of the Trolley.” According to owner Michael Wolfe, a former Disney associate, “The trolley is the best way to see Augusta.”
Augusta is full of charming old churches like the architecturally exquisite Sacred Heart Cultural Center- with over 94 stained glass windows glowing in the dusk when lighted for a ceremony.
The city has a rich Civil War heritage too, with the Augusta Cotton Exchange, the Confederate Powder Works Chimney and 300 confederate soldiers buried in Magnolia Cemetery.
The Augusta Canal Discovery Center and Enterprise Mill offers daily boat tours on the Augusta Canal, once used to harness the Savannah River’s power for the textile mills, before, during and after the Civil War. The Canal is a National Heritage Area and its popular Friday night music cruises run April through June.
But a growing arts culture may one day overshadow the historic aspect of the town. First Friday events showcase downtown Galleries like the Westobou Gallery on Broad Street named for the Westobou Festival, a five-day celebration of the arts each fall, including music, dance, film, the spoken word, and visual arts.
All down Broad Street, boutiques and bistros are adding to the scene. The Bee’s Knees at 211 10th Street serves tapas and small plates, has a full bar and indoor/outdoor seating. The Frog Hollow Tavern menu features regional and locally grown ingredients and an impressive wine list.
The Morris Museum of Art on the Riverwalk by the Marriott Hotel has over 5,000 pieces in its collection. The exhibition of Southern painters, many of them living and working today is totally inspiring.
Staying at the Marriott is a contrast to the laid back pace of The Willcox. The hotel along the seven-block Riverwalk has been recently renovated with ultramodern interiors, modern plumbing fixtures, recessed lighting and 48-inch high definition flat screens. StayConnect auto check-out systems allow you to check-out via an app on your mobile device. But it’s not all about comfort, some serious exploration of the natural world is possible, in Augusta.
The Phinizy Center for Water Sciences brings education and conservation together in the natural environment. With 14 miles of biking and hiking trails on 1,100 acres, the park is a Global Audobon designated Important Bird Area. It is also home to alligators, otters, bobcats and tree frogs. The park has handicap accessible boardwalks and guided hikes are available.
Spring in the Augusta-Aiken area offers the best of this unique region, like no other in the world.