Inside Shangri La
Tour a legendary estate near Waikiki filled with Islamic art
Step into the wondrous mansion of famed American heiress DorisDuke, and you’ll quickly grasp why it was dubbed Shangri La, afterthe paradise of the same name in the 1937 film Lost Horizon. Completed in 1938, the estate became Duke’sown fantasy in white marble and black lava, set not in theHimalayas but on the then-remote back side of Diamond Head inHonolulu.
For years the mansion was off-limits to the public, its fancifularchitecture ― a mix of Moorish and Spanish Mediterranean― and world-class collection of Islamic art little more thana rumor. Duke passed away in 1993, but it was not until last fallthat tours were finally offered through a partnership of the DorisDuke Foundation for Islamic Art and the Honolulu Academy of Arts.The fabulous coastal home is both a window into the life of asomewhat reclusive billionaire and a showcase of her collection ofart from India and the Middle East.
Tours begin at the Honolulu Academy of Arts, where you see asampling of Islamic art and a film depicting the mansion’sconstruction. Duke built Shangri La at the height of theDepression, spending $1.4 million of her inheritance on it. Herfortune was derived from American Tobacco and the Duke Energycompanies (her father endowed Duke University). The film touches onthe tragedy and tumult of the lovely socialite’s early life: herfather’s untimely death, her romances, her frenetic travels.
A guide then drives you to Shangri La, where Arabic scriptengraved on the front door bids guests to “enter therein in peaceand security,” a hint that Duke may have built the mansion as arefuge. The origins of the collection of Islamic art ―scattered throughout the 14,000-square-foot mansion, courtyard, andplayhouse ― range over several countries and historicperiods. Among the 3,500 pieces are giant tile mosaics, brilliantlyhued windows of stones and glass, and intricately carved gates,doors, and furnishings.
Some rooms ― such as the dining room, with its low tableand silk pillows arranged like a scene out of Arabian Nights ― are pure fantasy. The Turkish Room iscovered with dazzling, detailed patterns on walls, floor, andceiling. By the time you step out on the lanai, which overlooks thepool and a secluded bay guarded by berms of lava rock, you’vealmost forgotten you’re in Hawaii.
The tour ends in the serene Mughal Garden, where cascading wateradds a soothing sound and walls of trees stand like sentries. Youleave with a sense that Duke’s Shangri La, like the imaginaryvalley of Lost Horizon, may never reveal all of its secrets.
HONOLULU’S HIDDEN GEM
Shangri La. Guided 2 1/2-hour tours are popular; book up tosix months ahead. By reservation only, 8:30-1:30 Wed-Sat; $25,including mansion shuttle; tour not recommended for children under12. (866) 385-3849.
Honolulu Academy of Arts. You can see a sampling of DorisDuke’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.; www.honoluluacademy.orgor (808) 532-8700.