One City, Two Itineraries: Thoroughbred Country, South Carolina

One City, Two Itineraries: Thoroughbred Country, South Carolina

Where respite and recreation await both horses and riders 

Words by Rebecca Deurlein and Nicole Letts

Meet the writers

If someone asks you to recall your favorite teacher, you can probably name at least one impacted your education. For me, that’s Rebecca Deurlein, my coauthor for this story. I met Mrs. Deurlein when I was just 16 years old and a sophomore in high school. She was my journalism teacher, and I relied heavily on her wisdom from that point forward. Even after I graduated, we stayed in touch throughout my early adulthood. 

Rebecca went on to become a respected parenting expert and author, and I began my career, first as a teacher and later as a freelance journalist. Our paths crossed again a few years ago, Rebecca returning to freelancing as a way to write less about teenagers and more about travel. Now that we were adults, we could truly be friends.

What we did not expect, however, was to become excellent travel companions—but with different interests. Rebecca embraced all things outdoor adventure, while I sought arts and culture-based activities. Thus, the idea for this column was born. We would work together to bring readers the absolute best that a destination has to offer, from every angle possible. We hope these stories inspire you to travel with your loved ones in ways you can both, or all, enjoy. Take the solo polo lesson. Embark on a two-hour history tour. Then, meet back together over delicious cocktails to discuss your day. 

Welcome to Thoroughbred Country

When you imagine horse country, chances are your imagination conjures images of Kentucky, and for good reason. The Bluegrass State has long been associated with some of the most acclaimed horse events throughout history, including the Kentucky Derby, which celebrates its 150th Run for the Roses this year. However, for a pinch less pomp and circumstance, equestrians and horse lovers should adjust their reins toward Thoroughbred Country, South Carolina. 

Thoroughbred Country is made up of four South Carolina counties: Aiken, Allendale, Bamberg, and Barnwell. The crown jewel and the area’s “major” city is Aiken. Within a short drive of Columbia and Augusta, and a slightly longer one from Atlanta, Thoroughbred Country is a rural escape with all of the usual creature comforts—and quite literally, comforting creatures. Majestic horses graze in pastures or trot through the city center. You might even notice something unique about the crosswalk signs in Aiken’s Historic Horse District: they’re quite high so riders can control them from atop their steeds. 

Nicole’s Itinerary

Discover It

This Southern destination is filled with history. Begin your trip by getting a lay of the land and an understanding of the region at the Aiken County Historical Museum. Housed in Banksia, a 17,500-square-foot former private home, the museum offers an overview of the early residents who put the town and its surrounding area on the map. Known as the Winter Colony, Aiken was initially made fashionable in the late 19th century by women, particularly Célestine Eustis and her niece, Louise Hitchcock. 

The duo moved there for the healthy pine air, and as avid equestrians, they helped establish the town as a winter retreat complete with a polo resort. Both Célestine and Louise found that the soil in this region, known as “footing,” is much softer than that of northern horse-centric communities such as Saratoga Springs. In South Carolina, the footing contains sand, which makes for a softer landing for horses and their riders. 

That draw, along with the addition of the railroad, made Aiken a popular destination for the elite to build winter homes. Today, what remains of this community makes up the Historic Horse District. Meander through the museum taking in artifacts and artwork as you go. 

Shop It

For me, no trip is complete without a bit of shopping. Dipping in and out of boutiques is a great way to get a feel for the local lifestyle. Just outside of downtown Aiken, you’ll find Aiken Saddlery. The shop has everything from feed and boots to tabletop decor and clothing. Start here before working your way back into town. Once on Laurens Street, you’ll find a bevy of interesting shops. Aiken Center for the Arts is one part event space, one part local gallery. Here, artists’ work is displayed and available for purchase. Between books, ceramics, jewelry, and photography, I had a tough time narrowing down my purchases. A few doors down, Folly offers chic home decor, gifts, and women’s accessories, and across the street, there’s Return Engagement, a high-end consignment boutique filled with designer finds. 

Rebecca’s Itinerary

See It

If you need a pick-me-up in your giddy up, Thoroughbred Country offers just enough activity to draw you outdoors and make you want to gallop off into the sunset. I sometimes grow tired of the same outdoor activities—kayaking a new lake or biking a new town, for example. So, I was fascinated by the total immersion into the all-horses-all-the-time atmosphere of this area.

The best place to get a true feel for Thoroughbred Country is Bruce’s Field at Aiken Horse Park.  An expansive property in the heart of Aiken’s Historic Horse District, the park plays host to Olympic riders and eventers seeking a temperate climate and year-round competition.  

This means you can visit the facility at any time, walk among the six showcase-style rings and three schooling arenas, and watch the highest caliber riders train and compete, all in a low-key, relaxed atmosphere. 

The onsite pop-up shops carrying equestrian garb and baubles, the food trucks, and the festive atmosphere—especially on select Saturdays’ Grand Prix Day—make it the ideal place to dust up your boots.

For a taste of the finer things in life, visit New Bridge Polo & Country Club to watch “the sport of kings” played out just a few feet from your seat. Hear the thundering hooves and the crack of the mallet striking the ball as you picnic on the sidelines. The fast-moving chukkers (aka time periods) make for what feels like a quick game that isn’t short on excitement.

With more than 40 polo fields in Thoroughbred Country, you’ll have no problem finding a match.

Do It

If you’re an equine lover like me, watching all that horsemanship will make you itchy to get in the saddle. While most of Thoroughbred Country caters to riders with their own horses, you can find hands-on opportunities with a little advanced research.

I recommend a private polo lesson that is safe, educational, and a whole lot of fun. My instructor asked me a few questions about my riding experience, taught me about the equipment, and had me practice swinging my mallet with both feet planted firmly on the ground. Once I had the feel of the swing, I mounted my instructor’s beautiful polo pony, a blessedly patient mare who allowed me to keep her at a walk while I adjusted my swing from 9 feet up. I walked through drills, surveyed the polo field foul lines, and got a sense of how many muscles a polo player uses in a match (little known fact: core strength is a must). 

I could have stayed out there for hours, but I had another stop in my pursuit of horse heaven. 

Leave It Better

In the spirit of voluntourism—spending some time on a vacation giving back to a community or cause you believe in—I visited Aiken Equine Rescue.

It’s certainly not a hardship being there. The driveway winds its way past horses grazing in pastures, on rolling hills, and in paddocks. Volunteers of all ages muck stalls. Picnic tables sit in a grassy area near small barns. It’s positively bucolic. 

If you call ahead, you can schedule a tour. You’ll hear the history of the nonprofit organization and meet the horses that have been rescued from neglect, have retired from racing, or have been surrendered by people who can no longer care for them. 

Aiken Equine Rescue’s mission is to rehabilitate and rehome all of them. While the organization has a roster of resources, such as veterinary and dental care, farriers, etc., almost the entire operation relies on volunteers. And that’s where you come in.

Whether you are a solo traveler or are in town with an entire group, you can arrange to volunteer a few hours or a few days. You might paint, haul out, organize, feed, or muck, but whatever your assignment, you’ll leave feeling like you’ve contributed to a very worthy cause. 

Together Time:

Taste It

For a city with fewer than 32,000 residents, Aiken has an impressive number of remarkable restaurants in its repertoire. Reservations will ensure you’re able to dine at each of the spots recommended here, but with its laid-back environment, you’re likely able to snag a seat as a walk-in. 

Park Avenue Oyster Bar and Grill is one of the region’s newest restaurants. It offers fresh seafood with a twist, such as shrimp-stuffed hush puppies. Fried to perfection, the spheres are served with a side of cajun rémoulade and Sweet Pete sauce for an extra kick. For an entrée, don’t skip the maple bourbon-grilled mahi topped with sweet potato puree, wilted spinach, and pork belly and splashed with a healthy serving of bourbon bacon vinaigrette. Be sure to leave room for one of executive chef Paige Harden’s seasonal desserts made in-house. 

At Neon Fig, noshes include imaginative takes on familiar favorites. The lines between brunch and lunch are blurred: The restaurant’s signature dish is its cereal-fried chicken sandwich. Candied jalapeño coleslaw adds a spicy crunch to each sinful bite. A side of fluffy croissant beignets doused in powdered sugar and served alongside the restaurant’s eponymous jam is a must. 

The most surprising meal in town is found at The Feed Sack. Greg Pierce and Angelia Roberts tucked their restaurant into an unassuming plaza shopping center, but don’t let the humble exterior fool you. This spot oozes sophistication yet remains approachable. Pimiento cheese dip topped with a dollop of bacon jam sets the tone, rounding out with burgers and handhelds, crab cakes, pasta dishes, and steaks. The restaurant’s trademark is its house-marinated smoked prime rib served with whipped potatoes and broccoli. 

Sleep On It 

Kick off your shoes at The Willcox. Established in 1898, the hotel is one of the most iconic accommodations in the South. Its reputation is built on over a hundred years of excellence serving famous guests such as Elizabeth Arden, Winston Churchill, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who is said to have arrived by private train at the property’s back door. Legend has it that The Willcox doormen assessed guests' shoes for appropriate style and taste before admitting them to the hotel. 

Throughout its lifetime, the Willcox has maintained its place as a community hub. The lobby—with its plush leather furniture and enormous fireplaces—is often described as “the neighborhood living room.” Enjoy an aperitif before heading to dinner. We suggest the bar’s signature Parisian, its take on a classic cosmopolitan. Vodka, elderflower, cranberry, and fresh lime is shaken and chilled to perfection. 

Guest rooms are gorgeously appointed with luxurious linens, and in the hotel’s words, “an abundance of Southern charm.” Think antique dressers, needlepoint pillows, and enormous soaking tubs. For an enhanced experience, book the hotel’s bath butler service. At a time of your choosing, flameless candles, essential oils, a bathbomb, facemask, warm cookie, and beverage of your choice will be delivered to your room. Run your bath to your own preference and sink into ultimate relaxation. The next morning, awake to a full complimentary breakfast served in the dining room. 

For a more immersive experience, get a little out of town at Stable View. Here, you’ll be surrounded by a working horse farm complete with stables, several equestrian arenas, and cross-country fields. Book the Two Sox room to truly understand all that Stable View has to offer. This two-bedroom, two-bathroom suite is situated above the horse stalls below. You might hear them softly speaking to each other throughout the night. It’s a unique bit of white noise in one-of-a-kind lodging. 

Thoroughbred Country is rural, but the quaint town of Aiken livens it up. It offers fine and rather hip dining, but the reins hanging on the dining room wall remind you where you are. And where you are is a place to channel your inner horse lover, to do all things equine, and maybe even to discover a way to give back.