SOUTH CAROLINA

Experience Aiken

Marty Bailey, a transplant from Texas, admits she had no idea where Aiken, S.C., was prior to meeting her husband (an Aiken-ite), but now can't imagine living anywhere else.

"Aiken has so much rich history. It's a small town, but has enough to keep people busy."

She became involved by volunteering at Aiken Visitors Center & Train Museum and conducting the trolley tours. The tours, available only on Saturday, visitors would ask about tours for other days. Bailey realized a niche she could fill. And she did with Tailored Tours of Aiken. Currently offering three tours, you can choose from Historic Aiken (Monday - Saturday, 9 a.m. - 6 p.m.), Aiken Up Close & Personal (days/hours dependent on museum schedules) and Aiken and a Plantation (Thursday - Monday.)

At the start of the two-and-a-half hour Historic Aiken tour, she says she wants visitors to fall in love with Aiken like she did and for locals to feel even more pride for their town.

Wearing a self-designed hat ("When I am picking up people for tours, I don't know what they look like and they don't know what I look like, so it was easier to say 'look for the hat.' It stands out more than a name tag or t-shirt"), she drives guests around town, pointing out everything from the state's oldest serving farmer's market to Charleston-style homes, and explaining the difference between a "cottage" and a "mansion" while adding in fascinating anecdotes about the wealthy families who wintered in them.

"The most interesting thing to me about Aiken is the history of the people and that spirit that was, and still is here."

Elliot Levy, executive director of Aiken County Historical Museum agrees, saying Aiken is "unlike any place I've even been."

"So much has happened in the Aiken area that hasn't happened anywhere else. History here isn't confined to one day, but over many years."

There's definitely something special about Aiken, however describing it doesn't do it justice, it must be experienced by exploring the destination. You'll see in your own way, it's a place where history, culture, quaintness and modernness mix together, and mix together very well.

Explore Outdoors... At 2,100-acres, Hitchcock Woods is one of the largest urban forests in the nation. Open from dusk to dawn, it offers 70 miles of trail, perfect for joggers and hikers. Don't be surprised if you see equestrians on the trail as well. Wildlife watch or walk the trails at Carolina Bay Nature Preserve. Enjoy the beauty of the 14-acre Hopelands Gardens located in the middle of the city. Willed to the city after the owner's death, you can take in the gardens, fountains and more, including the Dollhouse. Did you know that Aiken has a diverse collection of trees? Breaking down that statement further, Aiken is home to the biggest collection of oaks in the nation as all species of pines in the southeast is represented here. Along Colleton Avenue is where you can find around 100 different types of trees. As phase one of the tree trail, you pick up a brochure to learn more about them as well dial the cell number on the plaque in front of them for a more in-depth information.

Horsin' Around... Thirty-nine champion thoroughbreds have trained at Aiken Training Track. You can learn about them as well as view photography, trophies and other memorabilia at the Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame and Museum, located in a 1900s carriage house at Hopelands Gardens. Most recently, 2013 Belmont Stakes winner, Palace Malice came from Dogwood Stables. And speaking of the Aiken Training Track, it was built in 1941 and is one-mile long. According to Mary Jane Howell, former public relations director with Dogwood Stables, at the highest of the season, around 300 thoroughbreds are training on it.

The horse district is around four square miles surrounded by dirt roads for the horses. While you can not tour the stables, there are many horse events throughout the year open to the public.

Aiken is also home to the oldest continuously played polo club, Whitney Field, in the U.S. The Aiken Polo Club played their first match here in 1882, and every Sunday during the season you can watch a match at 3 p.m., with an admission fee of $5 per person.

Arts Abound... Being home to Aiken's Makin', a fall event that features around 300 artisans, you know the arts are important to the city. Enjoy a production by the Aiken Community Playhouse. Stop in the Aiken Center for the Arts, located downtown, to find a one-of-kind hand-crafted gift to remember Aiken by. Recognizing the importance of the arts in Aiken, Juilliard School of Arts in New York has established an one-week residency for student performers.

Doin' Downtown... If you like to shop, eat and/or immerse yourself in local downtown culture, you'll enjoy walking in downtown Aiken. Be sure to take your time, and enjoy the stroll, scenery and shops.

Eatin' and Sleepin'... You'll find something for ever taste and budget in Aiken. One place downtown to consider enjoying a meal at Prime. Located in the second oldest building in the town, owner Randy Stamm has brought a "big city steakhouse" to  the town. When it comes to choosing where to rest, there's the well-known The Willcox (which is almost like a mini-getaway within itself) to the Carriage House Inn and more.

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