New Worlds to Explore

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Heritage Destinations of the Southeast

More vacationers than ever are turning down history's back roads to discover pieces of the past, reclaiming a sense of peace that comes with unhurried exploration. In the southeastern U.S., historic sites are becoming hot destinations for travelers, resulting in the revitalization of landmarks, neighborhoods and even entire regions.

A 1997 survey by the Travel Industry Association of America found cultural and historic tourism to be one of the more popular sectors of the travel industry, with 53.6 million adults visiting a museum or historical site in the prior year. Spurred by this trend, communities and state tourism organizations in the Southeast are linking a variety of sites into new heritage trails and historic districts, encouraging visitors to savor yesterday's charms and lessons at a leisurely pace.

"Every rural community has a unique sense of place to capitalize on, and more areas are using their historic places as a sustaining economic development tool," says Carole Summers, heritage tourism coordinator for the Kentucky Department of Travel in Frankfort.

Visiting historic places is the number-one reason people come to Kentucky, Summers adds. "Baby boomers are bringing their kids to give them more of a quality experience."

Unique and memorable venues in Kentucky include the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln in Hodgenville, the National Scouting Museum in Murray, the Kentucky Derby Museum and the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill. Civil War heritage trails feature battlefields and museums, and scenic trails wind through the Daniel Boone National Forest, the Appalachian landscape and eastern Kentucky's Pine Mountain.

Tennessee ranks eighth in the nation among states in the number of visitors it draws to its historic and cultural attractions. Magnolia-shaded mansions, silent cemeteries and lively battle reenactments take visitors back in time. Trails of adventure lead through arts and crafts communities, fine art galleries, the homeland of country music, and the birthplace of the blues and rock 'n' roll. Other trails showcase African-American achievements, Cherokee Indian ancestral lands and northeast Tennessee's pioneer settlements.

The rolling hills of central Virginia provide a pathway to the presidents -- the state's Route 29 threads through lands studded with reminders of Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe and James Madison. In honor of this year's 200th anniversary of the death of George Washington, two dozen sites across the state have collaborated on a driving tour that follows the footsteps of the first president.

The Virginia Indian Trail highlights sites of importance to Native American heritage and culture. Civil War trails allow the exploration of more than 250 sites, including Manassas, Appomattox and other battlefields where black and white Union soldiers performed countless acts of bravery.

Another bicentennial is being celebrated this year in North Carolina: the discovery of a large yellow rock by a twelve-year-old boy at the Reed Farm near Fayetteville. The rock turned out to be a gold nugget, and the Reed Gold Mine historic site marks the event that started the first North American gold rush.

The Walkway of History in downtown Greensboro guides visitors to markers that chronicle local African-American history. Tours at the Guilford Courthouse National Military Park offer insights into events that took place during the Revolutionary War period. Raleigh, the state capital, provides 46 miles of greenway trails and more than 150 parks and lakes to explore. A walking tour through Wilmington's historic district delights with a mix of architectural styles. …