The town of Aiken, South Carolina, has a deceptively small population. Yet, it attracts VIPs and some of the country’s wealthiest citizens for various events throughout the year, and The Willcox Hotel is where those visitors want to stay. Travel and Leisure Magazine ranked it #7 on its list of Best Hotels in the World in 2016, and as recently as 2019, Southern Living Magazine rated it as the #1 Best Hotel in the South.
I had an opportunity to spend a night at The Willcox recently and can now understand why it has garnered such recognition.
The Hotel’s Fascinating History
The beginning of The Willcox dates back to 1898 when a fire completely destroyed the former grand hotel in town, known as the Highland Park Hotel. Frederick Willcox had been the caterer at Highland Park and was approached by those who were accustomed to his wonderful food about starting a new hotel in Aiken. What was first called The Willcox Inn began hosting guests in 1900. As its popularity grew, so did its need for more space. Expansions took place in 1906 and 1928.
At the end of the 1800s, many people were drawn to Aiken because of publications touting the town’s health benefits. The climate in the fall and winter, the dry air, and the forests of long-leaf pines giving off pleasant aromas were said to be far better than the conditions along the coast for those suffering from “malaria and other maladies.” Many of those same articles mentioned the presence of golf courses, polo grounds, and stables. A yearly influx of what became known as Winter Colonists began with many of them building multi-room “cottages” and adding fox hunting and steeplechase events to the attractions in Aiken.
Among the famous guests who came to Aiken and stayed at The Willcox Hotel were Winston Churchill, John Jacob Astor IV, Joseph Pulitzer, the Count and Countess Bernadette of Sweden, and former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The story is told that FDR’s train would conveniently “break down” on the tracks beside the hotel, and he would be wheeled into the basement of the hotel and taken by elevator to his favorite suite on the third floor. There he was joined by his long-time mistress who lived a few blocks away. Once, during Master’s Golf Tournament Week in nearby Augusta, the demand for rooms at The Willcox was so great that a request for a reservation from the Duke of Windsor had to be declined!
Grand Southern Entrance and Lobby
The tall white columns project a “Gone with the Wind” vibe when you drive onto the property, and the flags flying over the front door will catch your eye. The United States flag, the South Carolina state flag, and the Canadian flag are side by side. Many Canadians started coming to Aiken (and staying at The Willcox) in the 1970s and 80s for fox hunting and continue to return. Their flag is a welcome gesture on the part of The Willcox.
The lobby stretches on both sides of the front door offering huge fireplaces as the focal points. Rich wood paneling and accents, beautiful fabrics on the furniture, and plenty of seating configurations can easily justify the lobby’s nickname as the “Living Room of Aiken.” A few steps up, you’ll find the reception and concierge desks and a busy bar, making it a logical and comfortable gathering spot.
Geoff and Shannon Ellis bought The Willcox in 2009. They invested a tremendous amount of time, effort, and money into bringing the property back to an elegant grandeur that is almost impossible to find in other towns of Aiken’s size.
Guest Room Amenities
Guest rooms at The Willcox Hotel showcase the magnificent architecture and attention to detail intended by the original builders. High ceilings and crown moldings make rooms feel spacious. Most have fireplaces. Some of the suites even have more than one fireplace. High-speed internet and a nightly turn-down service are included in the room rate, along with a cooked-to-order breakfast.
Unexpected in other hotels, but logical at The Willcox, is the presence of both dog and horse concierge services. Many people prefer to travel with their pets these days, but guests who come to Aiken and stay at The Willcox Hotel are often interested in services for their horses, too.
A saltwater pool is open in the spring, summer and fall, and a full-service salon and spa are on the premises, utilizing expert spa therapists.
The Willcox takes the green movement very seriously. The owners and managers are conscious of staying environmentally responsible and constantly stress this with their employees and with the suppliers they use. As a result, the hotel has received certification from several organizations for its efforts. Notably, they are partnered with Clean the World to provide recycled soap products to low-income families around the world.
The Willcox Hotel isn’t just pet-FRIENDLY; it gives pets and their owners the royal treatment. Pets receive a plush bed, a water bowl, a baked treat, and a Willcox pet tag, as well as a turkey jerky turndown service. Made-to-order meals are available, as well. Pet owners are provided with a map to walking trails, clean-up bags, and a directory for pet-friendly restaurants, veterinarians, and pet shops.
Executive Chef Ed DeFelice and his staff work to create memorable dining experiences for guests at The Willcox Hotel and for others who choose to come for a meal. He uses local suppliers for meat and Fulton Fish Market in New York City for the best fish available and loves putting his own spin on dishes that are regional favorites. The restaurant has received recognition as being an excellent place for brunch or a romantic dinner.
Participation in Community Events
The Willcox Hotel is an enthusiastic promoter and participant in various annual community events in Aiken. One that is coming soon is the 2020 JOYE in Aiken Festival, which brings in the best musicians from around the country and particularly from the Juilliard School of Music in New York.
The Willcox Hotel is an outstanding reflection of so many aspects that make up the personality and appeal of Aiken, South Carolina. It deserves its reputation for excellence, and I highly recommend that you make a reservation well in advance when you are going to be in town.
Disclaimer: My visit was hosted by the Thoroughbred Country Regional Tourism Office, but this hotel gets my enthusiastic endorsement. The opinions expressed in this review are 100% my own.
Article written by Destination Expert Connie Pearson of There Goes Connie.
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