After work one Friday, my fiancé, Steve, and I plopped onto our couch, exhausted from the long week. We began our usual exchange about what we’d like to do that weekend. As each of us took turns saying “nope” to the same old suggestions, we decided it was time for a quick getaway. We’re still fairly new to the Charleston area, and as native northerners, we never tire of exploring South Carolina.
After researching some nearby destinations, we chose Aiken. Steve and I like trying new things and it looked like there was a ton to do in the city, plus the photos were so charming (oak tree canopies and all).
Our first stop was at Aiken Brewing Company, an inviting, family-owned microbrewery located on a central downtown street. Housed in a charming brick building, the brewery’s exterior wall is home to a mural with chairs, curtains and the words “Furniture Co.” a reminder of the building’s past inhabitants.
After studying the lineup of handcrafted brews, Steve weighed the Thoroughbred Red and the hoppier Double Pale Ale, and chose the latter. I couldn’t wait for the first sip of the Honey Wheat Ale.
Bar favorites like chicken wings, wraps and burgers dominated the menu. Steve and I read the description for the Shrimp Jammers and locked eyes. Who could resist shrimp stuffed with jack cheese, fried and served with Cajun bell sauce? Another round of brews would complement the appetizer perfectly.
We paid the check and took to the streets of downtown Aiken. Signs of the city’s rich equestrian heritage were everywhere: we pointed out the colorful horse statues dotting the downtown district as we walked, pausing to take photos with our favorites.
Our next stop was Aiken Antique Mall. Steve walked not two feet into the store when he spotted an autographed Mickey Mantle baseball and vintage golf photographs.
With my fiancé preoccupied by sports memorabilia, I continued on, hoping to find a treasure to take home. I spotted a vintage clock I liked, but sadly, it was already on hold for another shopper. “Hey, check this out,” I heard from Steve a couple minutes later. We left the store with a beautiful print of a fox that turned into our combined souvenir for our new place.
We continued our downtown stroll and rested for a moment, taking a seat on a bench facing a flowing fountain next to the statue of William Aiken. Our next stop was planned.
Part of Steve’s vacation prep always includes some research on live music. While perusing local haunts online before our trip, he read aloud “prohibition-style cocktails” and I exclaimed “we’re definitely going there!”
The atmosphere of the roaring 1920s was in full effect at Aiken Speakeasy and Eats. Dim lights and live jazz music, even my cocktail order fit the aesthetic—a Double Rye Manhattan, and a Whiskey Old Fashioned for Steve.
A day filled with sun, fun, food and drinks tuckered us out. Sleep came easy that night.
Part of the reason Steve and I chose Aiken was because it offers top-notch equestrian opportunities—something we had never tried before. Though both of us were a little nervous, we pushed our fears aside, making room for the memories this new experience would bring.
We got a pair of friendly steeds from Rebel Ranch Horse Tours. Our tour guide, Annette, gave us a rundown on how to handle horses, and we were on our way into Hitchcock Woods. Immediately our ride was nothing short of magical. Longleaf and Loblolly pine trees filtered the sunlight and stood like an army of soldiers protecting us from the elements. For long stretches, there was nothing but the tranquil sound of the horses’ hoofs clopping on the pathway and birds singing.
Two hours of horseback riding through the 2,000 acre woods brought us a sense of accomplishment at having done something new. Beyond that, we were relishing the peace that comes from such an encounter with nature.
Steve and I celebrated the end of our trip with a meal at Casa Bella, an Italian restaurant with a chef who grew up in Italy’s Abruzzo region. Menu items are based off of his mom’s recipes.
No Italian meal begins until wine is on the table. After a few sips, we ordered calamari and clams sautéed in an olive oil, garlic and white wine broth. These are flavors of comfort.
Our waiter spoke about the menu extensively and checked on us just enough. One time he stopped by at the exact moment we had both popped a crispy calamari, I gave him a thumbs up and a vigorous nod—the international symbol of yum.
For dinner I chose lobster ravioli and Steve ordered veal saltinbocca, served with prosciutto, spinach and mozzarella in a mushroom Marsala wine sauce. Our smiles between bites showed our satisfaction. This was the best Italian meal we’d had since moving to the south almost two years ago.
Steve said, “I’m so glad we took this trip.”
Of course, I was too. I felt like it was the perfect break from planning our future—a chance to get in the now.