The road trip from the airport in Augusta, Ga., to Aiken, S.C., was easy.
I was reminded that the civil engineers in the South hold to high standards, and know well the business of getting you where you’re headed.
We arrived at the farmhouse where my wife’s sister and her family live.
A southern charmer, it’s on the east edge of town, in the deep woods of South Carolina, and it backs up to 100 acres of cropland. The 100-year-old house is all wood, has a huge attic, is painted white but needs a new coat, and has porches everywhere.
At the end of our short road trip, we pulled the Chrysler minivan up to the soft, sandy driveway, and our five nieces came tumbling out of the house, their baby brother in arms.
Hugs, introductions and directions on doorstep shoe removal were given – the entire property was covered with free-roaming chickens and their resultant matter – and we were officially on vacation.
Aiken is a shockingly charming place. It is, every inch, a small town in the South.
However, there is a community within it that maintains an element of old-South plutocracy and its appurtenant grace: the equestrians.
There is a large community of people that love to breed, ride, race and trade their horses, and it affects everything else in town. There are large estates, a hundred charming shops on dozens of streets, and a score of tasteful and stylish restaurants that would easily match the commercial enticements of a town five times the size of Aiken.
While driving very slowly around the small, brick avenues, and enjoying some welcome air conditioning, my wife and I spotted a large, beautiful house. It had an enclosed and furnished courtyard and glistening, dinosaur-like magnolia trees on the grounds, and was titled with a tiny sign reading “Casa Bella.” We would come back to this place.
So we did.
Leaving my wife’s parents to watch the six children for the evening, my wife and I dressed in our finest and dragged her sister and her sister’s husband to Casa Bella.
We arrived at sunset, and the weather wouldn’t cool until after we left, so we decided against the brilliantly lit patio seats and opted to dine inside. Wine, salad, pasta, delicious meals and desserts followed.
By the end, my brother-in-law and I had taken off our sport coats and were leaning back and speaking frankly, as if we had finished watching a football game together. My wife and her sister (and, if I am honest, the two men at the table) were giggling like girls at every funny story and cultural reference.
About the restaurant, I can give the highest praise available: I barely noticed it.
I had a fantastic evening with amazing food and great company, but in the scope of the treasured memory of the evening, I can’t centrally feature the restaurant. The service was ideally surreptitious, the food was praiseworthy, but undistracting, and the result was a mood that I would seek to replicate.
When we see them again, we’ll be returning to Casa Bella.
In the morning, we all rose early and did something crazy: We loaded up for a two-and-a-half-hour road trip to the beaches of Charleston, SC. – on Memorial Day.
To be continued.
For the start of our road trip, “Visiting the South,” see Part 1.Written by: