Hawaii Vacation Creates Shangri La

The front door of the Shangri La
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One of my favorite places in Hawaii reopened to tours this week. Shangri La is closed during the month of September each year for conservation work. Called one of Hawaii’s “most architecturally significant houses,” it is both a tribute to and collection of Islamic art.

The five-acre compound is secreted in a residential area behind Diamond Head. By today’s standards, the home itself is relatively modest in size. However, the building and grounds compliment one another as parts of the overall composition. Large windows form walls that can be lifted or lowered to open rooms completely to the outside. The grounds include beautifully arranged plants, stairs, reflecting pools and water gardens. The view of the shore with Diamond Head in the distance frames the small estate. It is this combination of Islamic focus with Hawaii as backdrop that I find most interesting.

Doris Duke built Shangri La in the late 1930’s. Over the next 60 years, she filled it with an extensive collection of Islamic art. But to encounter Shangri La is much more than a tour of pieces of artwork in an unusual museum. This was the private retreat of one of the wealthiest women in the world for most of her adult life. She first visited Hawaii at the conclusion of her honeymoon, and immediately began plans to build a home. Duke already had several family estates at her disposal, including a Fifth Avenue mansion that she donated to the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University. This Hawaii home was the only one that she built for herself and filled with the Islamic art that she loved.

This quote from Duke captures what many of us feel when first experiencing Hawaii: “The idea of building a Near Eastern house in Honolulu may seem fantastic to many. But precisely at the time I fell in love with Hawaii and I decided I could never live anywhere else, a Mogul-inspired bedroom and bathroom planned for another house was being completed for me in India so there was nothing to do but have it shipped to Hawaii and build a house around it.” (from Shangri La: Islamic Art in a Honolulu Home by Sharon Littlefield)

Photos in the book show Duke surfing and enjoying a luau with another Duke – Olympian and surfing legend Duke Kahanamouku. It says she became friends with the entire family and they became her social circle for many years — quite a change from her New York society upbringing! Not all of us have the option to live in various mansions or travel the world, but we all feel the special spirit of Hawaii that captured Doris Duke’s heart and led her to create this serene escape.

Tours of Shangri La MUST be arranged through the Honolulu Art Academy. Due to the residential nature of the neighborhood, you must arrive on a van from HAA to be admitted.