There’s one thing about traveling in South Carolina that always rings true. You don’t have to go far to go far.
My husband and I experienced that on a recent weekend getaway in and around Aiken, the heart of the Palmetto State’s Thoroughbred Country.
We had always known about the area’s history as a winter getaway for well-heeled Northern families in the 1800s, and about its connection to horses and polo, but more and more it was building a reputation for its arts and culture scenes. When a friend talked up some pottery she had purchased there, we decided a weekend trip would do us good.
Just a short drive from our home in Columbia, we could already feel time slipping into a slower rhythm when we checked in to the beautiful Carriage House Inn in Aiken. Wooden rocking chairs, a banistered staircase, shuttered windows and chandeliers were special touches that made this home away from home true to Southern style. Each room here is decorated differently. Our suite included prints of hunting dogs hung on the walls, upscale white linens and furniture that reflected the inn’s history and style. We also had a lovely balcony overlooking the courtyard with palmetto trees and a fountain. Perfect for unwinding before embarking on our mission: to experience the area’s history and find some new treasures.
We mapped out our weekend with visits to nearby towns—fueled by fluffy omelets courtesy of the Carriage House Inn—starting with the Jim Harrison Gallery in Denmark, SC. Harrison was a South Carolina artist known for his paintings of rural landscapes, Lowcountry marshes, Coca-Cola signs and other scenes that speak to the heart of the Palmetto State. His work is highly collectable, and we’ve been wanting one of his prints for our foyer. His brick gallery, featuring a Coca-Cola billboard on one side, sits on a vibrant street corner in the small town where he lived. Filled with original works as well as prints, it was the perfect place to choose just the right image to hang on our wall. We went for a gorgeous landscape print that seemed to capture both the promise of a new day and the peaceful nature of the Lowcountry.
After drinking in the beauty of Harrison’s work, it was time to taste some history. We never pass on a good home-style meal, and my friend strongly recommended lunch at Miller’s Bread Basket in Blackville. The meat-and-three restaurant was founded by a Mennonite family who moved to the area in the 1960s. They later sold Miller’s Bread Basket to a couple with Amish roots. The menu combines the heritage of both cultures with a heaping dose of Southern ingredients, specializing in home cooking, with freshly baked bread and pie, too. My husband loved the meatloaf topped with house-made diced tomatoes, while I never say no to fried chicken. Each bite had a crisp that was music to my ears, while the meat remained juicy, covered in a memorable seasoning. And the mac ‘n’ cheese tasted like Sunday dinner at my Granny’s house. We were almost too full for a slice of pie. Almost.
We wanted to check out the area’s pottery traditions, as recommended by our friend, so our next stop was The Little Red Barn Pottery and Art Gallery in Barnwell. This homey workshop in a barn has an interesting collection of pottery pieces in different styles, including traditional face jugs, which have big eyes, teeth and often funny expressions made into the side of a vase. Many were provocative—even outlandish. We didn’t see the potter throwing the wheel while we were there, but it is a working studio and visitors often see her at work. The gallery also features locally made quilts, nature photography and sweet jams. I couldn’t leave without buying some of the fragrant artisan soap.
The next gallery we explored was the Salkehatchie Arts Center in nearby Allendale, which showcases the work of more than 70 Lowcountry artists, authors and craftspeople. It’s a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting the area’s artists, and the collection and variety is just terrific. The inventory changes often and includes necklaces, books, bowls, prints and other crafts, all created by local South Carolina hands.
Welcoming us back to the Carriage House Inn, we were greeted with fresh, soft and gooey homemade cookies. It was a really nice touch after a full day of exploring.
Our Sunday focused on experiencing some of the area’s cultural history and traditions.
We started at Redcliffe Plantation State Historic Site, home to James Henry Hammond, a planter, congressman and governor who famously declared “cotton is king” before the Civil War as he defended slavery as an economic and social system. The site is fascinating, and the house is furnished with many family heirlooms. The property also includes Spartan wooden slave quarters and information about the generations of African-Americans who built, grew up and lived on the property. We loved seeing the heirloom garden and walking down the fragrant lane of ancient magnolia trees.
We had a few hours of daylight left and decided to take one last step back in time at the Living History Park in North Augusta. Open every day from dawn to dusk, this park brings colonial times to life.
The park was built to show what life in the area was like when the area was first settled, with homes, shops and even a stockade. Re-enactors often are on site demonstrating activities and skills, making the park and its greenways the perfect place for an engaging walk through time. While we were there, they were getting ready to host the park’s biggest annual event—Colonial Times: A Day to Remember, an immersive festival each fall that includes musket-firing, meat-smoking, candle-making and all the skills necessary to live a fruitful life in the 1700s. It’s fascinating to get to experience first-hand all the things people did to survive.
As we were driving home, we realized how close we live to such a faraway place, and how easy it was to step into a distant time, a distinct culture and a different mindset. Back home, we would now add to the crowd of people encouraging others to take a trip down here.