Inside Shangri La

Tour a legendary estate near Waikiki filled with Islamic art

Lora J. Finnegan

Step into the wondrous mansion of famed American heiress Doris Duke, and you'll quickly grasp why it was dubbed Shangri La, after the paradise of the same name in the 1937 film Lost Horizon. Completed in 1938, the estate became Duke's own fantasy in white marble and black lava, set not in the Himalayas but on the then-remote back side of Diamond Head in Honolulu.

For years the mansion was off-limits to the public, its fanciful architecture ― a mix of Moorish and Spanish Mediterranean ― and world-class collection of Islamic art little more than a rumor. Duke passed away in 1993, but it was not until last fall that tours were finally offered through a partnership of the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art and the Honolulu Academy of Arts. The fabulous coastal home is both a window into the life of a somewhat reclusive billionaire and a showcase of her collection of art from India and the Middle East.

Tours begin at the Honolulu Academy of Arts, where you see a sampling of Islamic art and a film depicting the mansion's construction. Duke built Shangri La at the height of the Depression, spending $1.4 million of her inheritance on it. Her fortune was derived from American Tobacco and the Duke Energy companies (her father endowed Duke University). The film touches on the tragedy and tumult of the lovely socialite's early life: her father's untimely death, her romances, her frenetic travels.

A guide then drives you to Shangri La, where Arabic script engraved on the front door bids guests to "enter therein in peace and security," a hint that Duke may have built the mansion as a refuge. The origins of the collection of Islamic art ― scattered throughout the 14,000-square-foot mansion, courtyard, and playhouse ― range over several countries and historic periods. Among the 3,500 pieces are giant tile mosaics, brilliantly hued windows of stones and glass, and intricately carved gates, doors, and furnishings.

Some rooms ― such as the dining room, with its low table and silk pillows arranged like a scene out of Arabian Nights ― are pure fantasy. The Turkish Room is covered with dazzling, detailed patterns on walls, floor, and ceiling. By the time you step out on the lanai, which overlooks the pool and a secluded bay guarded by berms of lava rock, you've almost forgotten you're in Hawaii.

The tour ends in the serene Mughal Garden, where cascading water adds a soothing sound and walls of trees stand like sentries. You leave with a sense that Duke's Shangri La, like the imaginary valley of Lost Horizon, may never reveal all of its secrets.


Shangri La. Guided 2 1/2-hour tours are popular; book up to six months ahead. By reservation only, 8:30-1:30 Wed-Sat; $25, including mansion shuttle; tour not recommended for children under 12. (866) 385-3849.

Honolulu Academy of Arts. You can see a sampling of Doris Duke's art collection in the Arts of the Islamic World Gallery. 10-4:30 Tue-Sat, 1-5 Sun. Museum visit without Shangri La tour: $7, $4 seniors and students ages 13 and up, ages 12 and under are free. 900 S. Beretania St.;

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