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Tuesday, 17 April 2007 00:59

"Lazy" Williamsburg and the Fat Canary

    One of the nation's first cities, Williamsburg, VA, has been in a perpetual state of torpor since its earliest days.  One anonymous 19th Century pundit summed it up when referring to the local Eastern State Hospital (the lunatic asylum), the town's main source of income and employment for much of the 18th and 19th Centuries, as "500 lazy [living] off 500 crazy."     

    Today, the town lives substantially off the hundreds of thousands of tourists who visit annually the privately run Colonial Williamsburg and the state run settlements of Jamestown and Yorktown down road.  In the summer they clog the roads, the oldest among them coming in for a little benign, behind-their- backs abuse from the townspeople, who refer to them as "creepy crawlers" for the speed with which they move (or rather don't move).  Still, the townspeople know better than to bite the hands that feed them, and whether they mean it or not, they are friendly and helpful in the stores, on the streets and in the pro shops of the area's fine golf courses.     

    Many of those tourists come back to Williamsburg eventually to live.  An estimated 60% of the residents of Kingsmill, which we visited yesterday, first encountered Williamsburg on a vacation.  Most of the rest of the residents are current and former members of all branches of the armed services, as Williamsburg is within an hour of Norfolk and two hours of D.C.
    Kingsmill is a resort community, but the residential areas are well separated from the modest sized resort, which comprises just 100 of the community's 3,000 acres.  Kingsmill has no hotel.  Every day, one of the resort's three excellent golf courses is designated for member play only, a very smart move on the part of the courses' owners, Anheuser Busch, whose brewery and famed Busch Gardens are at the edge of the property but well out of site.  The nine-hole par 3 course, squeezed in below and beyond the resort's pool, is an amazing sight, sitting on some of the best real estate in Kingsmill.  The two-mile wide James River is in view from every hole, making this possibly the most scenic pitch and putt course in America (and it is in pristine shape as well).       

    Kingsmill is quite laid back despite the resort traffic but consistent with Williamsburg's own demeanor.  Sleepiness is part of a great tradition in the town.  An editorial from a 1912 edition of the Richmond Times Dispatch put it best: "Tuesday was election day in Williamsburg but nobody remembered it. The clerk forgot to wake the electoral board, the electoral board could not arouse itself long enough to have the ballots printed, the candidates forgot they were running, the voters forgot they were alive."  Now that's sleepy.

 

    Someone forgot to tell Tom Powers that he is supposed to take it easy.  Powers is the creative chef at the always busy Fat Canary restaurant off Merchant Square in downtown Williamsburg.  My meal there last night more than made up for a mediocre one the night before (see the review on 4/15) and showed some big city inventiveness.
    As a single diner, I feel as obvious as a fat canary when I sit at a table in a crowded restaurant, and so I opt for the bar.  On this Monday night, the Fat Canary was crowded, a good sign insofar as Monday is typically slow. (Most savvy patrons are nervous that they might be served the weekend's "leftovers.")  But Fat Canary is a full-steam-ahead, seven-day a week operation, dinner only, so there really aren't any weekends per se.   

    I would have been content ordering off the five-appetizer, seven-entrée menu, but I was hell bent on having seafood after a few days of steaks and barbecue in North Carolina.  So when the friendly barkeep mentioned the appetizer of seared tuna, served rare on a bed of Japanese ponzu-broth- infused diced vegetables ($14.95), the healthy part of my heart skipped a beat.  It turned out to be everything I had hoped for, the tuna rare as promised, and sparkling fresh, with only a light searing, and the crisp nuggets of vegetables perfumed by the fragrant sauce (sorry for the purple prose, but it really was good). 

    For the entrée, I stuck with my resolve for seafood, forgoing the special of halibut on a bed of lobster risotto at the pricey $38.95, and opting for the roasted monkfish with curried Virginia clams & oysters, chorizo sausage, charred tomato, basil and chive couscous at a relatively reasonable $25.95. 
    I'm glad I did.  Talk about fusion, this dish melded wonderfully the tastes of Asia (the curry flavor was somewhere between India and Thailand, pungent but not at all overpowering), the couscous a delicate version of the usually taken-for-granted Moroccan grain, and the chorizo (which was both sweet and a little spicy) representing the northern Mediterranean.  The last fluffy little pile of couscous soaked up the last droplets of curry sauce; I thought the perfect timing was pretty cool.     

    When I first read the menu item, I thought, "Who cares where the clams and oysters are from?" but I realized later that I had missed the point.  The point was that "Virginia" clams and oysters meant fresh, and were they ever, tiny little things that were easy to pluck from their shells and were bristling with briny flavor.  Oh yes, the monkfish itself had a really nice char on the outside and managed to be both flaky and almost creamy beneath.  What a great dish!    

    I will say, though, that my entrée last night took as long to deliver as it did the night before, almost a half hour after I had finished my appetizer.  It must be that lazy Williamsburg thing.     

    The Fat Canary, whose name is from a poem by John Lyly, a Colonial era poet ("Oh for a bowl of fat Canary, rich Palermo, sparkling sherry...") does not maintain a web site since, according to the bartender, "the owners are 80 years old."  And why bother?

 

We'll have more to say about Kingsmill and a few of the other area golfing communities in an upcoming issue of HomeOnTheCourse.  Look for a special announcement about the newsletter coming in the next few weeks.
 

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    We spent Friday at Washington & Lee University in Lexington, VA.  Son Tim, the golfer, has been accepted there, and although we had made a prior visit, we had not met golf coach Gavin Colliton.  And in evaluating his choices, Tim insists on taking a look at the golf team's home course before he decides on his college (Davidson College and University of the South in Sewanee, TN are also in play).     

    We didn't have time to play the course, but we did stop to look at the sleek Lexington Country Club, whose original nine were opened in 1906.  Today, the course is a hilly, tree lined 18 in excellent condition, very green for mid-April in the Blue Ridge Mountains, with just a little more grass growth needed on the greens.  The adjacent community sits well back from the course, and from most holes you cannot see any houses.      

    At less than 6,400 yards from the tips, Lexington certainly is not long, but views of #1 and #18 from behind the clubhouse indicate it is tricky.  The first fairway, lined with trees from about 200 yards out, tilts hard from high right to low left.  Assuming the tee ball stays out of the trees, the approach is uphill to a smallish green with traps guarding its right half.      

    The finishing hole, a 520-yard par 5, is downhill from the tee, so a well-placed drive puts you in the go zone to the green.  But the approach - whether the second or third - is not for the faint of heart, with a stream at the base of the steep hill that leads up to the elevated, two-tiered green.  On the day we visited, the pin was on the far right, just in front of a trap.  Put your approach on the top tier of the green on the left side and your putt will likely roll past the cup and off the green.  Go for the pin and you will face the prospect of rolling down into the creek if you are short; or if you go long, a trap shot with an impossible downhill blast and the risk of being back down the hill.  The only bailout area is to the right of the green, leaving a delicate but not unmanageable chip shot.  It is a beautifully designed hole by Ellis Maples and Ed Seay, the course's most recent designers (1971).    

    The club has a longstanding affiliation with the university and offers membership to non-resident parents of students for just $1,000 per school year.  Lexington is a small but culturally rich town, given its two schools (the Virginia Military Institute is just down the road from W&L).     

    If you are wide open to choices about where to relocate and would be happy playing just one excellent golf course is a strongly collegiate town, Lexington is worth a look.  Phone:  540-463-3542.  One caveat:  The driving range is irons only.

    I am visiting communities in the historic town of Williamsburg, VA, this week.  The plan is to gather information about Kingsmill, Governor's Land, Ford's Colony, Washington National and Colonial Heritage, a 55 and over community with an Arthur Hills golf course.  If you are interested in the area and want me to address specific questions about Williamsburg, please contact me through the "Contact" button at the right.    Although I will write extensively about Williamsburg and its golfing communities in a future issue of HomeOnTheCourse, our advisory newsletter, I'll file a few notes in this space in the coming days.  The following is a quick review of dinner at a local restaurant last night (Sunday).     

    After a six-hour drive, I was looking for a good meal in comfortable surroundings, including a bar, a TV and something on draft.  I found it - for the most part - at the Blue Talon Bistro in the quaint and historic Merchant Square section of the town.  The bar had a zinc top, very modern and, though out of place in Colonial Williamsburg, it was wide and immaculately clean.  Above the bar was the requisite plasma screen.  The programming was a little monotonous, a continuously looping DVD of Julia Child cooking.  Without the sound on, Ms. Child's cooking appeared to have no other purpose than to get the taste buds going. It worked.

    The Blue Talon offers daily specials as well as a set menu that presents a range of meat, poultry and seafood items.  In addition, a special menu with three appetizers and entrees was also offered.  Sunday's weekly special is coq au vin; I was tempted, but I opted for the pork belly special, and ordered the country pate as my appetizer.  The pate ($7.95) was presented beautifully on a plate that included fanned out slices of fresh French bread, a tiny frying pan filled with gherkins and chunks of candied fruit and a little jar of grainy mustard at the center of the plate.  Tiny, salty, pitted French olives and larger green olives were scattered around the plate, making the entire portion as generous as it was pretty.  Too bad the pate was lacking the same level of taste of the accompaniments.     

    Given the size of the appetizer, I wished I had not ordered a salad ($4.95), but it turned out to be a simple plate of lettuces with a tasty vinegar and oil dressing, a generous ramekin of blue cheese chunks on the side.  No harm done.    

    I was looking forward to the pork bellies which, when done properly, have the kind of lustrous texture you would expect of a piece of meat generously layered with fat. The cast iron pot and fragrant beefy and anise scented steam promised something special, but sadly, these pork bellies ($21.95) didn't measure up.  The meat was not only too chewy, but the fat was cold and un-melted.  This was curious coming from a steaming cast iron pot - I was warned not to touch it - and I can only think that my bellies had been taken out of the refrigerator, or maybe even the freezer, just moments before immersion in the pot.  I put the meat back in the pot, which helped a little.  But since it took 25 minutes after my salad for the steaming pot to arrive, there was no good excuse for this miss.  If I'm going to give up so many calories, I want my fat melted at least.    

    My meal at the bar took a full 90 minutes, not long if you are in the dining room with wife and friends, but too leisurely for eating at the bar.  And to add insult to injury, the bartender coughed continuously throughout the meal.
    The Blue Talon promised a lot but came up short on its delivery.  I might give it one more chance this week, but I will choose my dishes more carefully.  Web site:  www.bluetalonbistro.com

Friday, 13 April 2007 03:00

A taste of Bald Head Island

    Island living is not for everyone, especially on an island reached only by ferry.  Just getting used to trading a car for a cart as your major mode of transportation is daunting enough, but then consider no shopping malls, no doctors' offices within 15 minutes, no hospitals in case of emergency.     

    But of course, there are the compensations.  No cars mean no pollution, no honking of horns or the potential for road rage.  Life is so much gentler than on the mainland, and you can walk or drive your golf cart to just about everything, including the golf course in just a few minutes.     

    For those drawn to the notion of island living without having tested their resolve, a place like Bald Head Island, a 20-minute ferry ride from Southport, NC, offers a couple of options.  The customary one is to rent a house for the summer, or any other season for that matter, and try it out.  But if you plan to live in a place year round, a one-season summer or fall sampler will not necessarily tell you all you need to know about life on an island in the dead of winter.
    Purchasing a piece of The Hammocks at Bald Head is an interesting alternative.  It is based on the time-share concept.  Essentially, you purchase one week per season - four weeks annually - at one of the nicely designed cottage-like buildings in the island's maritime forest, overlooking a part of the golf course.  The units are fully furnished and maintained and virtually all come equipped with the golf cart that is ubiquitous on Bald Head.  Ownership conveys membership in the Bald Head Island Club and its links-style golf course, the oceanfront Shoals Club and the on-site Hammocks Club which includes a clubhouse with fitness center and other amenities, as well as a "services coordinator."     

    Four weeks at the Hammocks begins around $150,000 for a two-bedroom unit and $160,000 for a three bedroom.  Insofar as homes less than a ½ mile away on the beach at Bald Head are on the market for as much as $4 million and more, The Hammocks provides an affordable entry into the high-end beach life.  Contact Bald Head Island agent John Liles at 800-346-5192.

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Wednesday, 11 April 2007 15:32

Updates

    Pawleys Plantation in Pawleys Island, SC, has been in the news lately for its five-year, $500,000 renovation program to restore the community's Jack Nicklaus Signature Course to a top ranking among the Grand Strand of Myrtle Beach's 115 courses. 

    Writing in Golf Business magazine, Peter Blais indicates that 250 trees have been removed and others pruned to increase sunlight to the turf on the 1989 layout.  The greens on the course, which had become thin on top and thick with organic material below the surface, are now under an aggressive agronomic program to promote grass growth, and all the sand traps are being refaced and reshaped.  We know it is working because we played the course in March, and it was in its best condition in five years.  Initiation fees are $15,000; a 4 BR, 3BA home in Pawleys Plantation is currently listed at $549,900. If you want to read the entire article, it is posted at the Nicklaus Design web site.   

    Speaking of Nicklaus, the upscale Fairmont chain has announced that Jack will design its new course on the Caribbean island of Anguilla.  Not only will the course be designated a Jack Nicklaus Signature Course, but also it will bear (pardon the pun) the distinction of being one of only 25 Jack Nicklaus Clubs worldwide.  The Clubs are part of a network of Nicklaus designed clubs that provide reciprocal privileges.  You will find more information at www.fairmontanguilla.com ...    

    Never to be outdone by Jack without a fight, Arnold Palmer recently announced something called Arnold Palmer Premier.  As far as we can tell from the firm's press release, those courses designated "Premier" will be of the highest quality design and, therefore, carry higher design fees than The King's current highest price of $1.5 million; and the clubs will have to maintain a high level of service, quality and course conditions to retain their Premier status.  In a recent interview in Golf Business, Erik Larsen, an exec with the Palmer Design group, said "Arnold likes to measure a place by how his friends and family would enjoy it, and not just once, but year after year."  As long as they don't have to pay that design fee...    

    Rarity Ridge, one of the group of handsome Rarity Communities in eastern Tennessee, sent us a brochure recently touting a new release of properties and indicating two previous events had sold out in four hours.  The copy mentions "One Day Only Pricing and Incentives" and an invitation to visit during the community's "Priority Selection Event weekend."  To qualify to attend, you must provide a fully refundable $1,000 deposit.  Only one problem:  No dates are indicated for the special event.  Just our luck:  We'll give them the $1,000 and find out the event is the same weekend we've been invited to Pine Valley.   

Tuesday, 10 April 2007 17:44

Golf Digest vs. Joe Golfer

    Golf Digest has just published its annual list of "America's 100 Greatest" golf courses a week after we received this year's Zagat's survey of "America's Top Golf Courses."  There are two fundamental differences between the ratings: Golf Digest includes private, as well as public, courses; and the magazine rates the courses based on the opinions of a panel of 800 low handicappers, whereas Zagat relies on anyone willing to submit courses, ratings and a few words of support for their assessments.  A comparison indicates that, for the most part, Joe Golfer knows his golf courses.    

    The two courses that receive perfect ratings of 30 in the Zagat survey, Pacific Dunes in Coos Bay, OR, and Whistling Straits in Kohler, WI, rank # 2 and #4 respectively on the Golf Digest list.  Pebble Beach (#1 in the magazine) ranks a near perfect 29 in Zagat. The two lists concur on a number of other top courses, with the Zagat list of 29s being matched by the magazine's top courses, including Bethpage Black (#5), Steve Wynn's for-high-rollers-only Shadow Creek in Las Vegas (#6), Bandon Dunes, OR (#7), the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island, SC (#8), and Arcadia Bluffs in Arcadia, MI (#10).

    A few surprises:  Pinehurst #2, ranked third in Golf Digest, rates "only" a 28 on the Zagat list; and The Prince Course in Princeville, Kauai, Hawaii, rates a top 10 at #9 in the magazine and just a 27 in Zagat's.  Those who rated it for Zagat called The Prince a "treacherous test" and advised bringing "aspirin," "a lot of golf balls," "your sense of humor," and money for the $175 greens fees. 

    There are just a handful of community golf courses on the Golf Digest list, including Cuscowilla, in Eatontown, GA, which we have reviewed here, rated 58th on the Digest public course list.  On the overall list of the best 100, including public and private courses, Wade Hampton, in Cashiers, NC, at #15, is the highest-rated course within a neighborhood.  The house-free Pine Valley in New Jersey is #1 once again.

    January clearly is not the best month for golf equipment sales.  It is still a few months before the season starts up north and a few weeks before the big golf show season begins with the introduction of new technology.  That said, this past January was pretty much a disappointing one for pro shop sales, on a comparative basis. 

    Compared with January 2006, sales of all golf equipment and accessories was down across the board in both dollars and units, and not insignificantly so (according to a chart in Golf Business magazine whose source was Golf Datatech).  Equipment sales in units fell between 10% and 12%, with balls down 9.7%.  Dollar volume losses were more moderate in view of price increases across all lines, except for woods, whose prices dropped an average 4.8%, leading to an overall retails sales drop of 15.5%.  With the new square Nike driver, the Sumo 2, recalled in mid-March for not conforming to USGA specifications, and no other drivers achieving break-through status, I may wait for a price drop on that Titleist 905R driver, the one Zach Johnson used at the Masters.    

    Golf Business, again courtesy of Datatech, published an interesting chart in its April issue.  It displayed rounds played in January state by state compared with January 2006.  The red numbers are across the board, with an average loss of rounds of 16.3% nationwide.  Only Oregon, up just 1.5% in rounds played, and Connecticut, up an astounding 50%, were in the plus column. Every golfer in Connecticut must have scooted out to the courses the first week in January when the temperatures were well into the 50s and courses that had closed reopened for a few days.  We took advantage of the weather surprise, and although the hairy, uncut greens putted like burlap, it was an unexpected treat to be able to play the day after New Years.

    Cedar Creek, arguably the most "modest" of the three Aiken-area communities we have visited, pitches itself as unpretentious, less full of itself and a better value than its local rivals ("Affordably Priced" is how they once advertised real estate in the community). You can still find a building lot for well under $100,000, and even lots on the golf course are available at less than $150,000 (one fairly large one at ¾ acre).  But although Cedar Creek is within the reach of those who may never have cashed stock options, there is nothing other-side-of-the-tracks about the place.    

    For the casual or occasional golfer, a well-designed accessible golf course that pays for itself with daily fee golf is a viable option.  Cedar Creek's Arthur Hills layout is a bargain for property owners and daily fee players alike; Hills is a player-friendly designer who, nevertheless, does not cave in to the notion of "fast play" the way some designers of resort courses do.  His design for Cedar Creek features high-banked bunkers at greenside (see accompanying photo) and enough challenges to appeal to all types of golfers. The better golfers can play the tips at over 7,200 yards at a rating of 74.1 and slope of 142.    

    Initiation fees for golf run $4,000, but we understand owners of property purchased from Cedar Creek's developers can get 50% off the fees.  About 250 residents maintain membership, and they seem to mix well with the daily fee golfers; greens fees don't exceed $50, except during Masters week, when greens fees at all the Aiken courses multiply significantly.  More than 30,000 rounds of golf are played annually at Cedar Creek.    

    Residents are an eclectic mix of 40- and 50-somethings still working full time, as well as retirees attracted by the reasonably mild winters, not intolerable summers and relatively low prices (compared with South Carolina's mountain and coastal communities, as well as the other two communities in Aiken we surveyed). The nearby Savannah River Site, opened in the 1950s to produce materials to support the nation's nuclear defense system, brought hundreds of PhDs to the area, and some have settled in Cedar Creek.  
    Housing options abound, with a small row of brick homes at just 1,400 sq ft minimums near the clubhouse and 3,000 sq ft minimum houses on plots between ½ and one acre along the 1st and 17th holes.  There are plenty of choices in between. You can spend around $300,000 for a comfortable 3 BR home on a nice lot, or you can own a top-end house for not much more than $500,000.  Property owner fees are a low $480 annually.
    PhDs, former CEOS, and factory workers make Cedar Creek the most diverse of the three communities in the Aiken area. It provides the best value in housing locally, but you'll do without the security gate and country club panache.  Still for the value conscious who don't mind sharing their nicely designed golf course with others, Cedar Creek will strike the right note.  For more info, contact Dick Salsitz at 800-937-5362 or Dick@CedarCreek.net .

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    With three golf courses within its gates and a mall just outside, Woodside Plantation offers the most "rounded" living experience of the Aiken golf communities. The golf courses carry prestige names - Bob Cupp, Rees Jones and Nicklaus Design. However, the first two courses are owned by ClubCorp and the newer Reserve course by the developers; two separate initiation fees and dues payments are required if you want membership privileges at the three courses. 

    On our visit, The Reserve seemed to be in the best shape of the three, and its clean, unfussy design made up for a lack of drama.  Caveat emptor:  If you are thinking Jack Nicklaus is behind a Nicklaus Design course, be advised that son Steve designed this one. The Golden Bear takes primary responsibility for courses with the word "Signature" after his name.

    The Woodside community comprises 2,300 acres of rolling land that includes 100 acres of lakes and 20 acres carved out as a nature preserve. It is the only community of the three visited that provides 24-hour security at the front gate. Its other distinctions are a croquet lawn where members and friends from surrounding clubs engage in weekly matches. As its rival communities do, Woodside offers miles of walking trails, both along the golf course and through the woods. Full golf membership in The Reserve Club, after payment of a $1,000 "social initiation fee," was $26,500 (refundable under certain conditions) or $13,250 (non-refundable) a few months ago.  Monthly dues for residents were $283, and $155 for non-residents.  Membership confers full golf privileges as well as tennis, croquet, swimming and use of the clubhouse.  An "activities membership" at half the full golf initiation fee provides use of the golf course two times per month (no greens fees) and lower dues rates.  This will appeal to those who purchase a home site and defer construction.

    The other Woodside Plantation courses carried an initiation fee of $18,000 for the two together a few months ago. Full privileges -- tennis, swimming, social -- came with $278 per month in dues (non-golfers can buy tennis and/or social privileges for lower rates).

    Woodside offers the entire range of housing options, from low-maintenance villas to large brick homes on substantial lots. The Reserve section provides especially nice golf views, as well as a few choice lake views. Woodside's Glen Haven is an "adults only" community for owners 55 and over. Prices in general throughout Woodside seem to fit in the middle range of the three communities reviewed, with home site prices starting well into the $100's and with the average house in the $500,000 category.  Annual property association dues are just $577 per year (about half if you own a lot only).

    For those seeking the most convenient shopping in the area, the 45-store Aiken Mall, with anchors Dillards, Belk, J.C. Penney and Sears, as well as a supermarket, lies about a five-wood distance outside the community's rear gate. Retail in Aiken is still in the emergent phase, and for those who'd prefer short trips to the store, Woodside's proximity to shopping is a big plus.

    At Woodside Plantation, three golf courses are a tease, given that two sets of membership fees and dues are necessary. The community has an "established" feel to it, with the vast majority of the lots built upon.  Woodside offers a wide variety of home site and housing options, and the manned gate will appeal to the security conscious. And you can virtually walk to the mall.  Woodside's web site details a nice discovery package for those interested in visiting.  Depending on your choice of accommodations - from the local Hampton Inn to the famed Wilcox Inn in Aiken - the package for two runs from $154 to $300 for two nights of lodging, a dinner and round of golf at The Reserve course.  Web site:  www.woodsideplantation.com
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Saturday, 07 April 2007 04:01

Aiken in your heart?

  Genteel horse country life beats at murmur level

    Augusta National is hosting the Masters golf tournament this weekend, and the city of Augusta, GA, cannot accommodate all the players, their families and the thousands of spectators.  There is considerable spillover across the state line into South Carolina, much of it in the Aiken area.
    We visited Aiken and a few of its golf communities nearly two years ago and came away impressed with the town, the golf and, especially, the relatively reasonable prices for real estate; development in the area has accelerated since then, but you can still find a nice lot with a view of golf course and/or water starting at around $200,000.  For a small town, Aiken offers a range of golf-related options. You'll fine laid-back gentility with an accent on things equestrian at Mount Vintage, the convenience of a mall just outside the gate and three golf courses on site at Woodside, and a community that revels in its lack of pretension at Cedar Creek.  And for those who prefer buying home and golf separately, the combo of an old house in town with membership at the famed Donald Ross Palmetto Golf Club is a wonderful option.     

    Horses share the spotlight with golf in Aiken. Long before the first mashie was swung in America, wealthy Charlestonians seeking relief from summer heat and malaria fled to Aiken, their horses in tow.  The lures in the 19th Century, as they are today, were the fresh spring waters, rolling hillsides and pine-scented air that have increased the area's popularity as a second- and retirement-home destination.  If horseracing or polo or steeplechase get your heart racing, Aiken is worth a look.     

    The town itself is right of central casting for antebellum, with a main street that is both quaint and active at the same time.  Although the ubiquitous malls have popped up outside town, Aiken has enough cafes, small retail shops and other attractions to keep the sidewalks crowded.  We had a nice meal at Davor's in town, but the family-owned Malia's receives the highest praise of Aiken's eateries.      

    Although Aiken isn't exactly nightlife central, there is an eight-screen movie theatre in the area, a recently formed performing arts group and a small but active art museum.  A branch of the University of South Carolina offers a stimulating array of courses geared to adults (as a side note, USC-Aiken has one of the best golf teams among NCAA Division II schools).  Most social activity, however, seems centered at the clubhouses in the communities we visited.     

    Modern medical care is available at Aiken Regional, a 225-bed facility that is currently promoting a plan to provide private rooms only, and at four hospitals in the Augusta area, including the Medical College of Georgia.  All are within 30 minutes of Aiken's golf communities.  The nearest airport of any consequence is in Columbia, about an hour away, with daily service to such hubs as Washington (Dulles and Reagan National) and Charlotte.     

    The topography of the area is much as it was in the 19th Century. Hitchcock Woods, American's oldest "urban forest," spans 2,100 wooded acres inside the Aiken city limits. In keeping with such a tradition of land preservation, golf architects Tom Jackson, Bob Cupp, Rees Jones, Steve Nicklaus and Arthur Hills have taken great care in leaving the land substantially undisturbed by their designs. Tall pines frame most of the fairways.    

    Architectural review boards in the communities we visited are conservative, and indeed a few of the communities have "preferred" builder programs ("preferred" as in mandatory). The results are harmoniously coordinated housing, if not architecturally diverse.  Housing styles for the most part fit the antebellum nature of this part of the south; many bricks from the good red clay of the surrounding countryside buttress the homes of Aiken.     

    The following are notes on Mount Vintage Plantation, the area's most refined and highest-priced community.  We'll follow with notes on Woodside and Cedar Creek in the next two days.


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 Mount Vintage is open for play year round, and the framing makes up for a few cold days in winter. 

Mount Vintage makes horse sense to equestrians, golfers

    Mount Vintage Plantation is a 4,500-acre community 12 miles north of Augusta, Ga. It features rolling hills, many miles of fences and a challenging 27-hole Tom Jackson layout. No condominiums or villas intrude on the plantation's rolling hills and forests.  Home sites range from one-third-acre wooded tracts (for patio homes) to 17 acres to accommodate multiple horses.  Indeed, some front yards are actually horse pastures on the larger properties, but even those people who choose more modest acreage can board their horses at the plantation's well-outfitted equestrian center.

    Mount Vintage is named for the vines that once dotted the plantation. Two local business executives developed the upscale community, which opened in 2000, and they attracted a women's professional golf tournament to Mount Vintage's relatively remote location. When Japanese soft drink maker Asahi Ryokuken ended its sponsorship in 2004, no replacement was found. By then, however, Mount Vintage had gained a measure of prestige in the golfing world, and to this day, the Plantation's marketing materials still point to the tournament.    

    The course's original 18 sports a 147 slope and 74.5 rating from 7,107 yards, although it plays as short as 4,779 and from three other sets of tees in between. Designer Jackson has been given beautiful pieces of property to carve in the past -- the upstate South Carolina Cliffs at Glassy comes to mind -- and Mount Vintage is no exception. Five sets of tees temper distances, but they don't leaven the pain of high entry shots to greens guarded by traps and water. The course's Crenshaw Bent greens, underpinned by a sub-air system like the one at Augusta National, are true and fast. Initiation fees are $15,000, and dues of $440 per year cover not only golf membership but also other property owner costs, such as roving security, landscaping and maintenance of the common areas.  Jackson's third nine recently opened for play, and we look forward to giving it a try.

    Mount Vintage's town center includes an exercise room with modern Nautilus Nitro-Plus equipment, a large conference room suitable for family reunions or business meetings, and a general store selling "basics" (snacks, drinks, toiletries) and offering a small "lending library" of books contributed by members. Six illuminated Har-Tru courts are behind the clubhouse.        

    Residents seeking shopping or off-plantation entertainment must make at least a 30-minute round trip ride, although a big highway project promises quicker trips and many new retail stores in a few years. The nearest town, Edgefield, is within 10 minutes and is small and typically antebellum. Some hunters may know Edgefield as headquarters of the National Wild Turkey Foundation -- the bird, not the bourbon.  

    Mount Vintage is genteel, refined, remote and quiet -- an especially good choice if you are bringing your horse and your A-golf game, but not if you are looking for an active nightlife. For more information, contact on-site agent Geoff Wright at 888-271-3330.  The web site is www.mountvintage.com

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