Friendly atmosphere, pristine beauty, and a rich equestrian heritage
Once known as the “Sports Center of the South” and, more recently, the “Winter Colony,” Aiken serves up a laid-back, friendly atmosphere, pristine beauty, and a rich equestrian heritage. It’s not unusual to see trick-or-treaters on horseback or two-button crosswalks for pedestrians and riders in its adorable downtown. Familiar names such as Vanderbilt, Von Stade, Phipp, and Hitchcock first recognized Aiken’s appeal in the mid-1900s.
Historically, Aiken has been a favorite winter destination for equestrians. The weather yields no extremes in any season. The ground rarely freezes, and the ideal, sandy footing is gentle on a horse’s hooves.
Hitchcock Woods, a 2,200-acre long-leaf pine forest with 70 miles of trails, is just outside of downtown and idyllic for equine pursuits and competitions of all sorts.
Unique to Aiken is the variety of horse disciplines available and the extremely high caliber of trainers, professionals, and amateurs involved in its equestrian community. An array of activities for horse lovers abound — for spectators and competitors.
There are three-day eventing competitions, hunter/jumper and open-jumping Grand Prix events, and polo with tournaments ranging from low goal to Gold Cup. Aiken is both the fall and spring base for polo on the East Coast. They’ve been playing polo here for 130 years and expect to continue with their passion for the sport well into the future.
Aiken County is also one of the few counties in the country with four nationally recognized hunts. Aiken Hounds is the only drag hunt and is held in Hitchcock Woods. Carriage driving, thoroughbred horse training, cutting, reining, and other big rodeo events round out the full spectrum of Aiken’s equestrian disciplines.
After a day of riding, head to historic downtown for a relaxing, elegant dinner at Prime Steakhouse. Lisa Hosang of the Carolina Real Estate Company claims its “steaks are to die for!”
Hotels and charming bed and breakfasts offer an abundance of southern hospitality. The Willcox hotel, with its first-class service and gracious accommodations, was voted one of the best hotels in the world in 2012 by Conde’ Nast’s Travel and Leisure.
Steeped in Aiken history, Rose Hill Bed and Breakfast envelops its guests with ambience and timeless elegance. Stables Restaurant at Rose Hill or The Restaurant at the Willcox, are also great dining establishments.
Stay a week, a season, or year-round, but be sure to discover the unique charm, personality, and active equestrian lifestyle of Aiken.
Live oak trees, sprawling horse farms, sweet tea, and warm hospitality
If shaded lanes, sprawling horse farms, and picket fences appeal to you, and the welcome sight of blooming azaleas and dogwoods seem preferable to drifting snow, consider spending time in Ocala. For some, Ocala, flaunting its Queen Anne and Tudor style buildings, conjures up images of “Gone with the Wind.”
Celebrity and champion riders recognize the unique appeal of Ocala. Chester Weber, Ocala native and combined driving international champion, elaborates. “Ocala is the home to southern hospitality south of the Georgia border, he says. “Unlike much of Florida, Ocala’s roots are southern, with magnificent live oak trees, sweet tea, and warm hospitality.” When asked what makes living in Ocala so wonderful, he comments, “The majestic live oak trees draped with Spanish moss, the rolling hills, horse people whose first careers were horses, Golden Ocala Golf and Equestrian Club, and access to great veterinary care and hospitals.”
The abundance of sunshine and moderate temperatures are just part of the appeal of Ocala, which is often referred to as the horse capital of the world. The area is rich with rolling green fields, the Ocala National Forest, outstanding golf courses, sparkling rivers, and freshwater springs.
Thoroughbred horses are big business and an integral part of this region of Florida. The industry impact is estimated to be in excess of $1 billion. Other popular breeds in Ocala include Arabians, Morgans, Quarter Horses, Draft horses, and hunter/jumper breeds.
Ocala’s Horse Shows in the Sun (HITS) presents one of the most popular hunter/jumper shows in the United States. The two-month event (January 16-March 17) hosts competitors from the United States, Mexico, Canada, and Europe.
In addition to hunter/jumpers, expect to see a colorful mix of other disciplines. Numerous equine champions come to Ocala to compete in roping, reining, polo, dressage, western pleasure, eventing, and more.
The Florida Horse Park, covering 500 acres near Ocala, is quickly becoming the centerpiece of Florida’s equestrian-lifestyle community. The park hosts international caliber events and draws competitors and spectators from around the globe.
For a bed and barn experience with or without your horse, take the short 30-minute drive to the lush setting of the Grand Oaks Resort. Choose from an array of beautifully appointed accommodations that all include traditional southern hospitality, private cottages, and your own private barn for your horses. Take a journey through time at the Florida Carriage Museum, located right on the resort property.
And then, after a satisfying day of golf, a carriage ride through the live oaks, or competing at the highest level, you’ll want to enjoy a unique dining experience. Expect an unhurried evening at Mark’s Prime Steakhouse, where they consistently serve “Steaks with Passion.” If you’re looking for a casual atmosphere with a menu that runs the gamut from award-winning prime rib to fish and chips, Horse and Hounds Restaurant and Pub is the place.
Santa Ynez, Calif.
Intoxicating views, wide-open spaces, polo fields, and valley vineyards
This is one of the last bastions of equestrian lifestyle in California,” claims Carey Kendall, real estate broker, ranch owner, and long-time resident of the Montecito-Santa Barbara area.
Santa Barbara is known as the jewel of the U.S. West Coast, with a climate that rivals that of anywhere in the world. The surrounding ranch land in the Santa Ynez Valley is breathtaking. Views of wide-open spaces, fields, and vineyards met by majestic mountains in the distance add to its allure. Reasonably short drives to Los Angeles and Carmel and only a five-hour drive to San Francisco make this an appealing and accessible destination. “It’s no wonder this area is flourishing,” comments Kendall.
Kendall describes the lifestyle as “early California Rancho — slow and easy with a lot of grace. It’s the kind of place that is rarely found today, where millionaires and billionaires drive their old trucks and mingle with everyone in town.” The vineyards are nationally recognized and rival those of the Napa Valley — without the crowds and tony prices.
A variety of horse disciplines gravitate to the Santa Barbara-Santa Ynez region. Polo is prominent and can be enjoyed at the Santa Barbara Polo Club, the premier equestrian polo club in the western United States.
The area is also a favorite of hunter/jumpers, dressage, all disciplines of western saddle, and thoroughbred racing, and it has recently begun to enjoy a significant return of Arabians. Add to this the reputation of having the best equine clinics in the country for all disciplines, and you have an ideal location for avid horse lovers.
Equestrian pursuits are only part of the attraction of this idyllic area of California. An abundance of other activities are equally as enjoyable.
Take a unique tour of a lavender, alpaca, or ostrich farm. Celebrate the rich multi-cultural heritage at prominent Native American museums, or visit a Spanish mission dating back to 1804.
Even the savviest of shoppers will be content with the endless choices of fashionable boutiques, specialty shops, and antique stores.
Visiting Santa Ynez and Santa Barbara
Hotels, cozy inns, and bed and breakfasts offer lodging options for everyone. Near Santa Barbara, enjoy Bacara, with its secluded setting, world-class spa, and intoxicating views of the Pacific coastline, or settle into the Santa Ynez Inn, an intimate Victorian inn just minutes from the valley’s vineyards, historic museums, galleries, and spectacular golf courses.
Whether it’s been a rigorous day on the polo field or a casual trail ride in the Santa Ynez foothills, you will want to unwind over a delicious meal. Trattoria Grappolo, a charmingly informal Italian bistro, is the place to go with family and friends for an authentic Italian meal.
Or reserve a table at Bouchon, where waiters serve delectable meals in an inviting ambience, prepared with fresh-from-the-garden ingredients and locally harvested seafood. And be sure to sample some of the region’s quality Chardonnay, Syrah, or Pinot Noir.
Southern Pines, N.C
Steeped in history, soft sandy footing, long-leaf pines, and a vibrant town
If you are looking for a friendly, vibrant town with a thriving equestrian community during the frigid months of winter, look no further than Southern Pines.
Deep in the heart of the Carolina Sandhills sits the quaint, flower-lined village of Southern Pines. Steeped in history and rich in traditions, it is sprinkled with an array of shops, antique stores, restaurants, and parks. Many of the historic buildings and private residences reflect the colonial revival style of Aymar R. Embry II, a noted New York architect who landed in Southern Pines in the 1800s.
At the heart of the equestrian community is the 4,000-acre Walthour Moss Foundation, a true nature sanctuary unspoiled by development and surrounded by horse farms. Imagine the subtle scent of pine as you canter along a trail with soft, sandy footing, beneath a canopy of signature long-leaf pines.
Jo-an DeSell, local resident and owner of DeSell and Company Realty Group, proudly states, “The Southern Pines lifestyle and equine community is a dream come true for all horse people. Whether you’re here for the Walthour Moss Foundation that is dedicated to horse and rider or the quaint yet diverse small town atmosphere — the area is truly heaven on earth!”
A solid mix of disciplines is flourishing in the Sandhills, including eventing, dressage, hunter/jumper, carriage driving, and polo. The Carolina Horse Park hosts the annual Stoneybrook Steeplechase, and horse racing can be enjoyed in nearby Coke County. For more than a century, Southern Pines has been home to the Moore County Hounds, the oldest fox hunt in North Carolina. Witness the blessing of the hounds on Thanksgiving morning, when the hunt holds its opening meet.
Southern Pines horse country also hosts some of the best trainers and breeders in the world. The Sandhills are home to some of the most advanced veterinarian technology, and the Equine Health Center at Southern Pines, a satellite of the North Carolina State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, offers world-class facilities for horse care.
If golf is another indulgence, neighboring Pinehurst is considered variously a golfer’s mecca or “the golf capital of the U.S.” Pinehurst boasts more than 40 championship courses available to challenge players at any level.
Visiting Southern Pines
Visit and enjoy authentic southern hospitality at one of the area’s charming hotels. The Jefferson Inn, touted as the only boutique hotel in the area, offers an intimate, luxury environment, while preserving the rich history of Southern Pines.
Known as the “Queen of the South,” The Carolina-Pinehurst Resort is a true homage to the genteel southern elegance of a bygone era. Enjoy a relaxing treatment at the hotel’s tranquil four-star spa, or visit with friends on one of its sweeping verandas.
Relive the foxhunt or the back nine while dining in the historic 1895 Grille located at the Holly at Pinehurst. It is the only four-diamond restaurant in the area. The restaurant prides itself in exemplifying southern hospitality and service.
Originally published Winter 2013