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Touring Shangri La: A visit to the opulent Oahu estate of heiress Doris Duke



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Duke purchased Shangri La’s acreage the following year for $100,000. By the time the home overlooking the Pacific Ocean was finally completed in 1939, the couple were divorced. But Shangri La remained Duke’s Hawaii retreat for the rest of her life.

A tour of Shangri-La actually begins five miles west, at Honolulu Museum of Art, where visitors board a mini tour bus for the 15-minute drive to the ritzy residential neighborhood Black Point and the front door of Duke’s former home.

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It’s quite a door, too—heavy, and seeming to whisper secrets beyond when opened. Our knowledgeable tour guide, Kathy Sharp, explains the door’s three elements of Islamic art. There’s calligraphy, much of it from the Koran; geometric designs, with stars being one of the most popular; and arabesque, an elaborate design of intertwined floral designs and still more geometric patterns.

The foyer of Shangri La’s 14,000-square-foot main house is a marvel of sandstone floors made from ocean coral. Moroccan colored glass in carved gypsum plaster encircles the foyer, filtering in sunlight. “This whole house changes every hour,” Sharp says.

Despite its size, the main house has only two bedrooms, including Duke’s private bedroom, which isn’t included on the tour. Making up for that, however, are seven bathrooms and a basement with a walk-in wine cellar, vaults and a surfboard rack. Duke was an avid surfer, taking up the sport after meeting the famed Duke Kahanamoku and his family.

Doris Duke’s love of the ocean is also evident in the Playhouse, a reduced-scale version of a 17th-century Iranian royal pavilion. The two-guestroom Playhouse is separated from the main house by a 75-foot swimming pool, adorned with water terraces, white marble steps and tropical landscaping.

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It’s easy to imagine the golden-haired heiress walking along the narrow brick pathway in her Mughal-inspired garden, listening to the quiet rhythm of the water springing from lotus-shaped fountains. Or chatting with her girlfriends in Shangri La’s dining room, once bedecked by ceiling-high saltwater tanks, now transformed into a distinctly Islamic room. The dining room has a draped fabric ceiling, cloth wall coverings and window shades made from Egyptian and Indian appliqué panels to give the effect of an elaborate tent.

A two-hour Shangri La tour turns out to be barely enough time to fully understand Duke, her ultimately complicated life and the Oahu retreat she loved. But Duke’s presence is, nonetheless, infused in every detail of the estate, from the golden shower trees in the courtyard she loved to the hand-knotted Spanish carpet she designed and the 1,000-square-foot living room in which it resides.

In a way, it’s almost as though she never left Shangri La.


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Photos: David Frazen/Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art

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