Long before the thoroughbreds came to town, Aiken already had a claim to fame: its warm, dry climate and lush pine forests made it a popular health retreat for those with breathing troubles.
Then little Loulie Eustis, a frail, 6-year-old orphan in the care of her well‑to-do aunt Celestine, arrived in 1872, and with her came Aiken’s future.
Loulie flourished, and so the family returned, winter after winter, affluent friends in tow. Those visits set Aiken on a course that colors its character to this day. Loulie grew up to be eminent polo enthusiast Louise Eustis, wife of elite New York horseman Thomas Hitchcock, and the Eustis and Hitchcock clans, along with their well-heeled friends from the north, laid the foundations for the city’s enduring tourism and equestrian industries.
Modern-day Aiken still wears the trappings of the city’s opulent past, but you don’t have to be rich to indulge in these elegant attractions.
Aiken Trolley Tours
Name-dropping is almost obligatory in Aiken. To talk about this small city, refer to the lengthy list of rich and famous folks who have stayed and played here.
Franklin Roosevelt. Fred Astaire. Bing Crosby. Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. The Vanderbilts. The Astors. The Whitneys. The sheikh of Dubai. The owner of the Hope Diamond—not to mention the diamond itself.
No one tells the city’s celebrated stories better than Judith Burgess, whose own Aiken family history dates back for centuries. On Saturday morning trolley tours, Burgess shares vivid tales of the rich and famous, as well as her own connections to Aiken’s special places.
“Aiken is a place that people from all over the world have connected to,” Burgess says, with an infectious delight in the city’s charms. “People have always been welcomed and accepted here.”
Winter Colony visitors were greeted by Aiken’s pleasant climate and ample space to build their “Aiken cottages” (each at least 22 rooms large, Burgess confides) and to introduce their passions for riding, racing and hunting with horses. “Miss Judith,” as she is called, points out famous “cottages” and the horse-friendly dirt roads that still connect Aiken with its equestrian heritage.
A “Miss Judith” tour spotlights the city’s oldest home— Chinaberry, built in 1824 for plantation owner William W. Williams, a key character in the birth of Aiken. Here on this property, the last battle of the Confederacy, the Battle of Aiken, was fought, and the house served as a makeshift hospital while “the Confederates held those Yankees back,” Burgess says.
And on a personal note, that’s the house Burgess and her sister grew up in.
“My daddy traded a Chrysler Imperial for that house over 60 years ago,” she says. “He was a wheeler-dealer.”
Burgess’ personal history blends seamlessly with her trolley tales. A retired elementary schoolteacher, she was recruited to share her knowledge of local history with visitors. She read Aiken history books, talked to locals and culled the best stories. When former schoolmates return to Aiken for reunions or retirement, Burgess welcomes their recollections and adds their anecdotes to her cache.
She recently led a tour with the granddaughter of one-time mayor Julian Salley, who owned the house that heiress Evelyn Walsh McLean rented on her visits to Aiken—the house where McLean hid her Hope Diamond inside her silk hosiery in a lingerie drawer. On tours, Burgess sports a replica of that gem, fashioned into a ring.
Burgess’ sparkling stories spill out, with flashy names and reflections of Aiken’s glittering past.
“I hope I can help people to appreciate Aiken and to want to come on a tour—and come back and bring a friend,” she says.
Aiken’s trolley tours leave from the Visitors Center and Train Museum, 406 Park Ave. SE. Visit aikenis.com or call (803) 642-7631.
Aiken Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame and Museum
Lisa Hall beams when she talks about her favorite horse, Blue Peter.
“That’s my boy,” she says, gazing up at the thoroughbred’s racing silks, stats and memorabilia mounted on display on a paneled wood wall.
“I remember going to the Aiken Trials as a young girl and finding his grave under a live oak tree—he's buried here in Aiken, at the training track,” Hall says.
With ease, she recites Blue Peter’s virtues—winner of the Eclipse Award, honoring champions of the sport; son of the fiery War Admiral and grandson of the legendary Man o’ War. Blue Peter was a favorite for the 1949 Kentucky Derby, Hall says, but a bout of appendicitis kept him out of the running. Illness in 1950 led to his death. In 10 starts, he compiled a record of eight wins and two third-place finishes.
“He never finished out of the money,” Hall says admiringly.
Hall’s high regard for horses and history fits her well for the job she loves—supervisor of the Aiken Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame and Museum. She took the reins in 2000, right after an electrical fire burned the upstairs of the old carriage house that houses the museum. Already working for the city’s Parks, Recreation and Tourism department, she asked permission to take on the damaged museum and transform the way it honored its 39 Hall of Fame Champion horses.
“I wanted to make it more like the museums I had seen in Kentucky, where you can really focus on the history of the horses and their trainers and stables,” Hall says. “We’ve had some really amazing horses that were trained here— that says a lot about the training facilities in Aiken—and I thought they deserved more than just a photo on a wall.”
The two-story museum features memorabilia donated by owners and trainers, plus a reference library where breeders can research pedigrees and where historians and students can research individual horses.
Visitors are frequent during prime horse seasons— March, when Aiken’s Triple Crown takes place, or autumn, for steeplechase, polo and fox-hunting events. Hall helps update Aiken’s year-round calendar of equestrian events, tracking the happenings in all the city’s horse disciplines.
“Aiken is one of the best horse towns in the country,” Hall says. “It may be a small city, but we’ve got just as much history here as Churchill Downs.”
Aiken Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame and Museum is at 135 Dupree Pl., inside Hopelands Gardens. Visit aikenracinghalloffame.com or call (803) 642-7631. For a full calendar of Aiken horse events, see equestriancalendaraiken.com.
Rose Hill Estate
A surefire way to ensure the pedigree of an old Southern home is having a ghost in residence.
Rose Hill Estate, a Winter Colony cottage now entertaining guests as a bed and breakfast, claims multiple sightings of its resident ghost. She’s said to be Claudia Wright Lea Phelps, matriarch of the property’s original family, unhappy with having some folks about.
“A guest the other day said he felt like something came and got in the bed with him while he was sleeping,” current Rose Hill owner Stephen Mueller says.
“So she likes some people!” quips his mother, Eva, his partner in the B&B.
The Muellers have joyfully shared the quirks and romance of this historic property with their guests for a decade. Rose Hill—the highest point in Aiken, the only Winter Colony home that retains its original full city block and outbuildings, and the first Aiken property on the National Register of Historic Places—had been empty, neglected and for sale for several years.
The Muellers had driven by, even explored its unruly gardens. With no background in running a B&B, they decided to buy and restore Rose Hill in 2002. Its gardens were so overgrown, no one was quite sure how many buildings were there.
“If we hadn’t been that ignorant, we probably wouldn’t have bought it,” Eva jokes.
“People ask us if the furniture came with the house,” Stephen says. “Keys didn’t come with the house. We signed the papers, and they said, ‘Good luck!’ ”
The shingle-style Dutch Colonial was the home of the prominent Phelps family for 80-plus years, then served as a religious college, spiritual retreat and art education center. Now the main house’s seven rooms and two suites are B&B accommodations. A greenhouse became a wedding chapel, with a hand-painted mural inside and a miniature bell tower outside. The Phelps’ former dog kennel is now a bride’s changing room. And the old stable is The Stables Restaurant and Bar.
Before welcoming their first guests, the Muellers furnished the main house top to bottom, scouring area antique shops. They refinished floors, replaced wallpaper and restored the richly wood-paneled Club Room to make it the envy of every visitor—oversized fireplace, intricately carved wooden bar, leather chairs and game tables.
Extensive labors reclaimed the gardens, whose huge cedars and magnolias, hydrangeas, azaleas, wisteria and camellias link back to Rose Hill’s history: Claudia Phelps organized the state’s local garden clubs into the Garden Club of South Carolina on the grounds of Rose Hill and served as its first president.
The Muellers call themselves “custodians for the next era,” bringing the property to life while preserving Rose Hill’s historic, low-key charm.
“It sustains a timeless elegance, like poetry or gardens or art,” Stephen Mueller says. “Some people are very moved. You can see the look in their eye—they recognize it as something very special.”
Rose Hill Estate is at 221 Greenville St. NW. Visit rosehillestate.com or call (803) 648-1181.
La Dolce Gourmet Bakery, Coffee and Tea Bar
Steeped in Southern culture, sweet iced tea is well known in these parts. But if you have a real passion for teas, spend an afternoon with internationally certified tea master Lady Kelly MacVean.
The title and credentials are for real. MacVean’s husband, Stuart, traces his family history to the Scottish Highlands, and he owns a plot of land there, making him Laird Stuart and his wife Lady Kelly.
Then, while living in England several years ago, Kelly MacVean dedicated herself to learning all she could about tea—different types, how to blend it, how to brew it, how to serve it—and she earned tea master certification from both the United Kingdom Tea Council and the American Tea Masters Association.
Add it up, and you get the Tea Lady, bringing a new twist on tea to downtown Aiken.
La Dolce is the gourmet bakery, coffee and tea bar MacVean shares with her daughter, executive pastry chef Kirstie MacVean, on Laurens Street, in the heart of Aiken’s busy retail district. Open since November 2012, it has enchanted customers with, literally, a world of teas, plus gourmet desserts, sandwiches and soups.
“There was clearly a hole in the market in Aiken,” says MacVean, an Aiken Electric Cooperative member. “We were offering something that people were looking for but hadn’t had. The afternoon teas were a big hit.”
Tea, as MacVean happily explains, is much more than the generic tea bags we tend to overboil, sugar up and ice down. Different teas call for special temperatures and steeping times to maximize their flavors. Certain teas, like fine wines, pair well with particular foods; many can be cooking ingredients. Four cups of tea a day, she says, can lower the risk of heart disease by 60 percent.
When people tell MacVean they don’t like tea, she responds: “Then you haven’t had tea made the right way. Can I make you a real cup of tea?”
The afternoon tea experience is a new adventure for most. Tiered trays of scones with lemon curd, jam and clotted cream, plus savory tea sandwiches and assorted desserts, are served with multiple tea courses. MacVean walks guests through the history and trivia of afternoon tea, disabusing them of misconceptions about “high tea” (the working man’s hearty tea, served on high dining tables) versus “low tea” (for aristocrats, served on low drawing room tables).
La Dolce’s cool colors and soft music offer a soothing environment to enjoy teas and treats, served on the 80-plus sets of tea china MacVean collected while in England.
“Our goal was to have an atmosphere that brought you in and immediately had you take a deep breath and just relax,” MacVean says.
And maybe wear a hat. MacVean has collected an array of hats suited to a tea party. Without fail, she wears one for afternoon tea and encourages customers to don hats as well—“as it should be,” for proper tea.
La Dolce is at 123A Laurens St. NW. Visit ladolce-aiken.com or call (803) 335-1440.