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In Aiken, residents take leisure very seriously.

A focus on leisure is not surprising in a city whose history is seeped with it. Established as a winter health resort in 1871, some of America’s wealthiest citizens — including the Vanderbilts, Rockefellers and others — chose to spend their winters in Aiken pursuing leisure activities.

Today, this genteel and hospitable city — just a little more than 2 hours’ driving time from the Upstate — welcomes guests with the same gusto that it welcomed 1800s aristocracy.

Aiken’s warm fall and mild winter make it a perfect place for equine activity. People come from all over the world to train and race horses here. While I was there, I saw stables owned by the sheik of Dubai.

Although Aiken’s equestrian lifestyle is active year-round, March is the perfect time to see it come to life as racers prepare for the 50th running of the Aiken Spring Steeplechase on March 26. The Steeplechase includes six races, carriage rides, horse shows, tailgating and a children’s favorite — the stick horse race.

Want to learn more about horse racing? Check out the Aiken Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame and Museum. Here, kids can read books about horses, try on child-sized racing gear and ride stick horses in the playroom while adults explore the museum and learn about the history of the sport.

Not in town for the Steeplechase? Check out a polo match. Polo is a fun-to-watch sport, sort of a cross between soccer and croquet — on a horse. Matches are held each Sunday from April until June. A $20 ticket includes access to the catered VIP tent. Kids will enjoy seeing all of the fun hats and rushing out on the field to stomp divots.

After seeing the horses in action, younger visitors may want to get up close and personal. For those interested kids and families, area stables offer tours and trail rides. Deerwood Stables offers lesson for children and adults of all ages, and has both 30- and 60-minute options. A minimum of four people in a group, and 24 hours’ notice, are required to book lessons.

There is, however, more to Aiken than horses.

Downtown Aiken is full of quaint shops just waiting to be explored. Children’s favorite Cyndi’s Sweet Shoppe will delight adults as well with its difficult-to-find vintage candies. Mom will enjoy browsing in boutiques that offer clothing, artwork, jewelry and more. There is even a bakery especially for dogs.

While exploring downtown, head over to the Aiken Visitors Center and Train Museum. The Aiken Railroad was the first steam-powered commercial railroad in the United States. The museum has nine dioramas that depict South Carolina towns and tell the history of the railroad. There are all sorts of interactive elements designed to keep kids interested and learning.

Looking for an outdoor activity? Hitchcock Woods, one the largest urban forests in the nation, offers 70 miles of sandy trails and stunning ecosystems. One of the more unique areas in the park is the Sand River, a stream that flows only during and shortly after local rain. In between the flow periods, only the dry, sandy riverbed is seen. There is even an area with quicksand. Don’t worry though — horses are more likely to sink than people.

If all of Aiken’s leisure activities leave you hungry, you won’t be disappointed in the dining selections. One of the most surprising restaurants I found in Aiken was La Dolce Gourmet Bakery, Coffee and Tea Bar. We participated in a tea tasting with co-owner Kelly MacVean, known by her Scottish title of Lady Kelly. As a certified tea master, Lady Kelly knew a lot about tea, from the proper brewing techniques and many flavors to the etiquette surrounding a traditional English tea. Who would have thought you could have an authentic English tea party in Aiken?

For breakfast, the Track Kitchen is a fun, hole-in-the-wall place where you can have a traditional breakfast alongside horse owners and jockeys. For a more eclectic breakfast, head over to The New Moon Cafe. Selections there include a variety of homemade breads, smoothies and sandwiches. If you love coffee, this is the place to go; they roast it on-site.

There are lots of good options for lunch and dinner including family-friendly cafes like Betsy’s on the Corner and What’s Cookin’.

If you are looking for fine dining, try The Stables Restaurant at Rose Hill Estate. The outdoor dining experience makes it a good place to go with children or for a romantic evening. Eating at Rose Hill is also a great way to see one of the original Winter Colony Estates up close. Go on a Friday night to hear live music on the patio. The sherry-poached halibut was superb and the risotto melted in my mouth.

Where to stay

While Aiken has many chain hotels, it also boasts a number of very charming bed and breakfasts, and unique independent hotels. The Carriage House Inn offers a wide variety of rooms including suites with laundry rooms and sleeper sofas. Visit http://www.aikencarriagehouse.com.

Annie’s Inn Bed and Breakfast features four guest rooms and a two common rooms. Relax in the rocking chairs on the front porch, or go for a swim — weather permitting — in the outdoor pool. Visit http://anniesinnbnb.com.

Perhaps the most well known of Aiken’s accommodations is The Willcox Hotel. The Willcox welcomed its first guests in 1900. While it has added such modern conveniences as a widescreen TV above the fireplace and DVD players in the rooms, its original beauty is preserved through antique furnishings, rugs and artwork.

Rooms are equipped with an attention to detail rarely seen in hotels: an umbrella in the closet, a pitcher of water with lemon on the bedside table each evening, turndown service that includes a hot water bottle to warm the sheets, a yoga mat for in-room exercise and a sewing kit on the mantle. Outside, bikes are available for guest use. The hotel also includes a full-service spa and outdoor pool. Visit http://thewillcox.com.

What’s Happening in Aiken in March

March 5 – 12: The Eighth Annual Joye in Aiken Performing Arts Festival and Education Outreach Program. Students, faculty and alumni of Juilliard travel to Aiken every March for this community-wide event. Visit www.joyeinaiken.com for a schedule of public performances.

March 19: The Aiken Trials. This event — in its 74th year — is a fun-filled full day of horse racing to showcase Aiken and the Aiken Training Track. Begun in 1942 as a way to give young horses in training the enlightening opportunity to experience every aspect of live racing, the Aiken Trials has become a time honored tradition as the first leg of Aiken’s Triple Crown events, held annually for three consecutive Saturdays in March. Visit http://aikentrials.com.

March 26: The Aiken Steeplechase. Perhaps the highlight of Aiken’s equestrian calendar, the Aiken Steeplechase offers a full day of horse racing and tailgating. This year marks the 50th running. Visit http://aikensteeplechase.com. i

Find out more

For additional information about the restaurants and other businesses included in this story, visit these websites:

http://www.hitchcockwoods.org

http://cyndissweetshoppe.com

http://www.aikenracinghalloffame.com

http://ladolce-aiken.com

http://www.betsysonthecorner.com

http://whatscookindowntown.com

http://www.rosehillestate.com

http://newmoondowntown.com

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