0

Aiken an overlooked vacation treasure

Most people probably never think of coming to Aiken, S.C., for a long weekend, but those who do would be smitten by the easy living options available in this laid-back community, which has been hosting visitors since old-fashioned pantaloons were in style.

The wealthy started coming here years ago, taking the train down from Eastern addresses for golf, horse riding, fox hunting, and elegant dinner parties. A lot of that still goes on. Polo has always been big in Aiken. Horse aficionados long ago brought their thoroughbreds here for training. High society liked it here, residing mostly at The Willcox. "An old fashioned Southern hotel, a grand white-pillared glory, as lovely and genteel as a rose on a lapel," accurately touts a brochure. Legend has it that FDR would take his private train to the Willcox and quietly slip in the back door.

Jeff Ellis is the proprietor of the Willcox, and he must be doing something special. "Come here on a Tuesday or Wednesday and the place looks like New Year's eve," says Cot Campbell, owner of Dogwood Stable. Cot and his wife, Anne, were attracted to Aiken for business reasons-he is thoroughbred racing's first and most successful syndicator-and delight in inviting friends to immerse themselves into Aiken's seductive hospitality.

Wide boulevards separated by islands with azaleas in full bloom, horse crossings (the horse always has the right of way), dirt roads, white picket fences, gray stone walls, towering pines, live oaks-with sprawling and irregular twists as if the creator might have had a stomach ache on the day they were designed, but backed away for a look and developed appreciation for what he had done-and a modest, clapboard cottage next to a rambling mansion ... these are among the things that give Aiken its unique appeal.

Early mornings you will find Cot, who has the look of an English squire with no hint of snobbery, at the stables. He and his associate Jack Sadler get updates from trainer Ron Stephens on each horse and have time for the grooms and riders, including a leathery blonde in short sleeves on an early morning that called for a down jacket.

Cot's guests, including Bruce and Carolyn Wilson of Atlanta, were out early to see Lou Brissie, a chestnut colt Cot named for the big-league pitcher who lives in nearby North Augusta. Cot likes sports heroes. He has named horses for Charley Trippi, Racehorse Davis, and Frank Sinkwich, who earned fame running for the Georgia Bulldogs. Lou Brissie, the original, gets about on braces today, owing to a bomb blast in World War II, but you'll never hear a complaint or whine from this remarkable man who overcame all odds to pitch in the big leagues-even with a shattered leg. If you are patriotic and you haven't read his book, "The Corporal Was a Pitcher," you should head to your local bookstore post haste.

If you order New Zealand lamb shank at the Willcox, you would enjoy a fine meal in an alluring and festive environment, but there is another venue in Aiken that should get equal billing. If you come here, you must have dinner at the Willcox, but you should also have breakfast at the Track Kitchen, which Carol and Pockets Carter have been operating for more than 30 years.

You can enjoy Carol and Pockets's fulfilling Western omelet with sausage and grits. Real people hang out at track kitchens like this one, with Formica-top tables and tiled floors. Some who come here are hungover, some know what drug rehab is like, and some bring their computers. There are framed photos of faded New York Times travel sections, vintage photos in overlapping frames.

Pockets got his name because of his billiards expertise. He took on all comers and once watched Minnesota Fats in an exhibition. What did he think about that? "I could have beaten him," Pockets smiled as he stirred a pot of grits. While he believes he could have whipped Minnesota Fats at pool, nobody around here would challenge Pockets when it comes to barbecuing.

Dinner at the Willcox, and breakfast with Carol and Pockets! Life is good in Aiken.

Loran Smith is affiliated with the University of Georgia and can be reached via e-mail at loransmithathens@bellsouth.net.