Charleston rides wave of revitalized waterfront

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CHARLESTON, S.C. -- What are the top three U.S. cities to visit? New York, San Francisco and Charleston, according to Conde Nast Traveler's 2002 Readers' Choice Awards.

Charleston, one of the Old South's best preserved cities, moved up from fifth place last year.

A transformed waterfront probably has something to do with the higher ranking.

Aquarium Wharf became a reality in May 2000 with the opening of the $69 million, 93,000-square-foot South Carolina Aquarium, now the city's most-visited attraction.

An Imax theater, shopping and the National Park Service's new Fort Sumter Visitor Education Center and boat dock were added last year.

The waterfront is what Charla McDonald, director of sales at the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, calls "a destination within a destination."

"Lodging occupancy has remained strong, thanks to our leisure-drive market and the even greater interest in historical sites. Any new reasons to visit or plan a return visit are positive for us," McDonald said.

According to the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce, room nights for June through August were up 13.8% over the same period last year, and September saw a 16.2% increase over September 2001, which had experienced a 15.2% drop from September 2000.

With business and meetings travel still down, the bureau is placing renewed emphasis on the group tour market as well as individual leisure travel.

"We anticipate more people will be willing to drive farther, meaning our drive market will consist of anyone residing within an eight- to 10-hour drive, as opposed to the traditionally important market of four to six hours," said McDonald.

She pointed to increased visitation at Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum in Mount Pleasant as an example of attractions that have become more popular due to their "historical significance and patriotic nature."

The two-story Market Hall, where Charlestonians enlisted for the Confederacy, was remodeled to bring back its original layout. It has an open-air market and the Daughter of the Confederacy's museum.

Missroon House, built in 1808 overlooking the harbor, reopened after a renovation by the Historic Charleston Foundation.

The South Carolina Historical Society's home underwent a project that included restoring the building to its original 1825 brownstone.

At the Charleston Courthouse, where some exterior walls date to 1753, a restoration uncovered what archaeologists believe is part of the original fortification of the walled city.

The Drayton Hall, a National Trust historic site billed as America's oldest preserved plantation house (circa 1738), completed a two-year conservation program.

Among new activities, Tour Charleston this summer became the first of a handful of walking-tour companies to expand ghost tours to a less-visited section of town around the College of Charleston.

It offers 90-minute evening tours of the area daily.

As reported, the city plans to begin $13.6 million in improvements next year to the Charles Towne Landing State Historic Site -- the first permanent colonial settlement in the Carolinas -- and broke ground in May on the Camden Towers Cultural Center on a site behind the visitor reception and transportation center.

The National Heritage Corridor, established by Congress in 1996, covers 240 miles across the state from Charleston to Oconee County in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Covering 14 counties, the corridor is divided into four regions -- one of which is the Charleston area -- that will each develop a discovery center. Two routes, the Discovery Route and the Nature Route, run the length of the corridor.

For more information, contact the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau at (800) 868-8118 or www.charlestoncvb.com.

For more information on the heritage corridor, visit www.sc-heritagecorridor.org.

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