Amid the beautiful resorts, great restaurants and shopping on Hilton Head Island, there is a another kind of experience to be had, one that feels like a visit to an altogether different time.
The Coastal Discovery Museum is dedicated to preserving the cultural and natural history of Hilton Head Island. Visitors can get a glimpse of how it was before it became one of the best vacation destinations in the world.
Just driving down the winding road that leads to the museum makes you feel like you've stepped back 100 years. The Coastal Discovery Museum has breathtaking grounds and lots of interactive exhibits indoors.
It is also a great jumping off point for many different tours and programs like Sweetgrass Basketmaking and a Blue Crab Exploration Tour.
The museum is located on 68 acres called Honey Horn and is housed in 19th century buildings. Live oaks dripping with Spanish moss surround the building, and marsh grasses stretch off to tidal streams in the distance.
Nature trails lead through the marshes, and the fantastic Camellia Garden explodes in season with more than 130 varieties of blooms. Three boardwalks extend into Jarvis Creek with fact-filled interpretive panels describing the salt marshes and how Gullah Native Islanders relied on this rich ecosystem for food and commerce. Gullah basket makers are often onsite sewing sweetgrass baskets in front of the museum.
Make sure to ask at the front desk for the scavenger hunt brochure, which encourages kids to hunt throughout the grounds to find where the photos in the brochure were taken.
A favorite stop for everyone is the Karen Wertheimer Butterfly Habitat. Filled with native butterflies and flora, this greenhouse garden and butterfly exhibit is brimming with nectar plants to feed the butterflies as well as host plants where butterflies lay their eggs and caterpillars feed. Learn about the four stages of the butterfly’s life cycle. During butterfly season (May through October) take a guided tour of the butterfly enclosure.
Attend a public program at the outdoor theater, where the seats are designed to look like cresting ocean waves. There is also a replica of a shell ring built with real Native American oyster, whelk, and clam shells, along with animal bones and other historic materials. Discover the purpose and presence of shell rings and learn where some of them are located throughout the Lowcountry.
Inside the main building, the Discovery House permanent exhibits tell the history of Hilton Head Island, beginning with the days when enslaved people on plantations produced Sea Island cotton and rice. These exhibits depict life during the early 20th century before the bridge to the island was built. Isolation of the island encouraged the Gullah culture to thrive and grow, to the mid-20th century when the resort-building boom reshaped Hilton Head forever.
Natural history exhibits explore the flora and fauna of the island, from seashells to alligators. Rotating exhibits showcase art and photography. The Kids' Zone, also located in the Discovery House, offers little children their own spot to explore and discover.