Tucked into a pocket of upscale homes in Honolulu, Shangri La is an unexpected find. The oasis of Islamic art and architecture was once the private retreat of one of the wealthiest women in the world.
Doris Duke fell in love with Hawaii when she first visited on her honeymoon in 1935. She extended her stay to four months and later returned to build this five-acre estate. At the time, the location was fairly isolated but the town has now surrounded it. Still, plain white walls at the driveway give little hint of what they conceal.
I have visited Shangri La several times. Last week, I took my mother so she could see one of my favorite Hawaii places. She was very impressed with what one woman accomplished. Duke collected authentic pieces of Islamic art, furnishings and architecture from around the world. She also commissioned some custom pieces for this house, and had copies made when original pieces were not available in sufficient quantity (such as additional lamps or windows).
It is not necessary to have any background in art, history or culture to enjoy this house. Small groups of a dozen people are driven to the house from the Honolulu Art Academy and given a very relaxed and informative tour by friendly guides. The pace is easy, although there are some stairs. We took the afternoon tour and it was noticeably hotter than my previous trips in the morning. The cost of the tour is $25, which includes the van ride and tour of the home. It also includes admission to the Honolulu Art Academy, so be sure to come early or stay after the tour to see some of the collections there. We had lunch at the HAA cafe before the tour, which is always a treat.
Each time I have gone to Shangri La, there have been local Hawaii residents along on the tour. Many of them grew up swimming or fishing on the beach below Shangri La and wondering what was inside. One remembered seeing camels wandering the grounds!
The estate closes each September for restoration work. The final tours this month are August 28; they resume October 1. Often the tours sell out, so it is good to plan ahead to see this gem.