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SC reopens Hunting Island lighthouse, Ted Turner's former island for tours

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Hunting Island Lighhouse01.JPG (copy)

The lighthouse at Hunting Island State Park reopened to visitors last week. It was one of the last state park features to still be closed because of coronavirus. File/Andrew J. Whitaker/ Staff

South Carolina's most popular state park has reopened two of its key draws. 

Hunting Island State Park is now offering reservations to climb its lighthouse and has resumed tours to St. Phillips Island. Both offerings remained closed when state parks reopened May 1. 

Ferry tours to St. Phillips Island, which since September have been provided by Mount Pleasant-based outfitter and outdoor tour company Coastal Expeditions, started running at half capacity on Tuesday. 

Tours are being offered on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Guests are asked to wear face masks while they are boarding and on the ferry. 

St. Phillips once was a getaway for CNN founder and billionaire Ted Turner. The S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism bought it in 2017 for the bargain price of $4.9 million. The first ranger-led tours there started in late 2018. 

Turner's beach house was going to be offered up for rentals as early as this spring, but those plans have been delayed because of COVID-19. 

The Hunting Island lighthouse, which is the only publicly accessible lighthouse in the state, officially reopened last Monday with a new reservation system to allow for social distancing.

Visitors must call ahead and reserve a time slot from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Reservations can be for up to six people, will last no longer than 45 minutes and won't guarantee visitors entrance to the park. 

Lighthouse admission and St. Phillips Island tours are among some of the last state park amenities to come back online since state parks reopened. 

Parks started accepting new cabin and camping reservations by mid-May, and visitor centers and retail stores reopened shortly after. Shelter, community building and wedding venue rentals were allowed this month. 

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While visitation has slowed somewhat since the first few weeks parks reopened, parks "continue to be busier than ever," said director Paul McCormack

Of the 34 parks that offer some type of camping, all but one saw an increase in their camping occupancy for the first two weeks of June, McCormack said, and four saw increases greater than 100 percent. 

Figures collected by a trail counter on the state's most popular trail, the Table Rock Mountain climb, also illustrate just how many people have been coming out to the parks since they reopened, he said. 

The trail counter's highest single-month count was from 2015, at a total of 8,707 hikers who crossed the half-mile point on the trail. In May, that record was shattered: 11,454 people crossed the same point. 

Occupancy outpaces again

Now for seven consecutive weeks, South Carolina hotels have filled more rooms than lodgings in the region and across the U.S., and the latest stats show the largest lead yet. 

The Palmetto State's average occupancy rate was 52.2 percent from June 7 to 13, up from 49 percent the previous week. Average occupancy in the Southeast was about 44 percent, and rates averaged just below 42 percent for the U.S. overall.

Average daily rate for hotel rooms in South Carolina is also higher, almost $112 compared to $97 in the Southeast and $89 across the country. 

Reach Emily Williams at 843-607-0894. Follow her on Twitter @emilye_williams.

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