In the shadow of large American cities, there are many small towns that deserve to share the spotlight for their beautiful homes, gardens and historical significance. One such town is Aiken, South Carolina, about 125 miles inland from Charleston.

Nestled on the banks of the Savannah River in a pine and oak forest, Aiken was established in 1835 as a retreat from the heat and humidity of the Atlantic coast. It was named after William Aiken, president of the South Carolina Railroad. Wealthy citizens with names such as Vanderbilt and Astor came here to build stately homes in what became known as the Winter Colony. It was the ideal setting to raise their horses and live the good life.

During a recent trip to the South, I traveled first to Charleston, South Carolina. In conversations with locals, I’d occasionally mention that I was visiting Aiken next. The reaction always seemed to be the same: “Aiken? Why are you going THERE? Do you have family there?” As this continued to happen, I could feel my rural Yakima roots rising up in protest. Having been to Aiken about 25 years ago, I knew it was beautiful and well worth the visit even if it was a small town.

Today, Aiken has a population of close to 30,000 and is a unique blend of historical sites and new business enterprises. It offers historic home tours; the 14-acre Hopelands Gardens where you can walk through a labyrinth, as well as historic train and thoroughbred racing museums. There are interesting shops and restaurants, a year-round farmers market and seasonal horse races. The University of South Carolina campus here even boasts a planetarium open to the public for weekend shows.

Arriving in town, I found that the stereotypical Southern hospitality is still alive and well in Aiken. Everyone was anxious to help, from shopkeepers to a tourist center. It’s a town with pride in its heritage. One car I saw sported a window decal reading, “I Grew Up in Aiken.”

Since I have a weakness for Gone With the Wind-style architecture (think “Tara” with its majestic pillars), I returned to stay at the Willcox Hotel which I had discovered on my first visit here. The hotel first opened in 1900, with expansion completed in 1928.

The Willcox website bills it as a “grand, white-pillared glory as lovely and genteel as a rose on a lapel.” Well, I don’t know if I’d go that far, but it certainly is lovely and I’d say worth the extra dollars. There’s a gourmet restaurant and full-service spa. Most rooms have fireplaces and marble and white-tile bathrooms.

I enjoyed my $300 “Junior Suite,” which was the last room available due to a large wedding party in residence. It had a sun-filled living room with traditional furnishings and louvered wood shades, a high, four-poster bed which required a step stool, and a sampling of chocolate fudge for a snack.

Venturing out into town, it was interesting just to walk up and down the tree-lined streets, exploring shops with everything from candles to clothing and antiques.

Street signs include an image of a horse, a reminder of the importance of the equine industry here. An art gallery held an eclectic mix of work, mostly by regional artists. There’s even a crepe shop where I sampled an apple and honey creation.

In the downtown area, there’s a domed, red-brick Savannah River office building. That and a museum currently under development are the only visible signs in town of the adjacent Savannah River Site, a 310 square-mile U.S. government reservation that spans parts of South Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia. Here, five nuclear reactors once produced materials for national defense until they were shut down in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Today, the reservation is used to research alternative energy sources.

There are tours in Aiken that showcase about a dozen of the more than 30 historic homes on the National Registry and other noteworthy sites. Typically, a group tour will last for two hours and cost about $15 per person.

A couple of tour highlights include Joye Cottage, an imposing 60-room, white residence that boasted Aiken’s first swimming pool. It was originally built as a farmhouse in the 1830s and remodeled through the years to include various architectural styles including Roman and Greek Classical Revival features. Rye Patch, another grand, two-story, white frame structure built around 1900 and later remodeled, has its own horse stables and paddocks. It was home to a member of the Goodyear family and hosted the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.

Staff at the Aiken County Historical Museum, set in yet another striking, white Southern Colonial mansion with columns, are happy to fill in more history of this community they love. Among its displays, the museum features the Winter Colony Room with photos of the early homeowners who came in the late 1800s.

Outside of town, you’ll find the rolling hills, green pastures and white fences of horse country. Aiken is prime horse breeding and training country with its ideal sandy soil which is easy on the horses’ hooves. There are numerous polo fields, including Whitney Polo Field, the “oldest continually played polo field in the United States.”

There’s also the Hitchcock Woods to explore. This 2,100-acre woods has over 65 miles of trails for walking, hiking and horseback riding, with scenic ponds and streams along the way.

What the town of Aiken lacks in size, “it makes up for in charm and character,” suggested Jenny Burghardt, tourism supervisor for the town and a transplant from Knoxville, Tennessee. “There’s so much culture and history,” she said.

Aiken has a symphony orchestra, local ballet company and community playhouse that hosts singers and musical groups from as far away as New York and London. Each year, there’s also a “Joye in Aiken” music festival, held in conjunction with the Julliard School’s Music Division, which includes events at the Joye Cottage historic home.

Aiken is “a very friendly, family-oriented, down-to-earth environment,” concluded Josh Hobbs, an Aiken County nutrition educator who was manning a table at the farmers market. “I love the hometown feel. Everywhere you go, it’s always, ‘Hi. How are you?’”

“It’s a very pleasant life,” agreed Sue Western, a docent at the Aiken City Visitors Center and Train Museum, who moved to Aiken from Florida.

For visitors, Aiken offers a slice of the beauty, history and personality of small-town America. It’s a place that just makes you smile!