A tour of Shangri La, the dreamy estate-turned-museum of Doris Duke

shangri la hawaii

It doesn’t look like much. I’ve just parked in the driveway of Shangri La, which was once the home of Doris Duke, but I’m wondering where the house is.

I see a small, plain white windowless building nearby, which I’m guessing is a visitors center, and lots of plants, but nowhere do I see an extravagant entryway to a large and imposing home or even sweeping views of an estate’s grounds, which, I think, must be somewhere. I’ve heard great things about Shangri La and I’m here for the guided tour.

Doris Duke was the daughter of James Buchanan Duke, a wealthy tobacco tycoon, who died when she was 12 years old, leaving her 80 million dollars. Duke lived a life of privilege, but was a very quiet and private woman, whom the press nicknamed many times as the richest girl in the world. She traveled to many countries developing a fondness for Islamic art. In 1935, she visited Hawaii with her husband, James Cromwell, on the last leg of their six-month honeymoon. They had such a good time in Hawaii, making new friends, like Hawaiian watermen Duke Kahanamoku and his brother, Sam, and enjoying the island’s beautiful landscapes, they extended their stay several weeks, which turned into four months. The time they spent in the Islands is what ultimately made Duke decide to make Hawai‘i the location of her next home, which she called Shangri La, after the imaginary and idyllic town from the novel Lost Horizon.

doris duke shangri la museum
The sundeck is seen on top of the roof.

“The Kahanamoku family helped her find this property; she purchased 4.9 acres for $100,000 dollars and, then, the first $1.4 million dollar house was built when Hawaii was still just a territory,” my guide, Victoria, says. We’re still standing in the port cochère and people in my group are now asking questions about Duke’s money, family and love life—all very interesting, but I’m anxious to see the home that she requested be turned into a museum called the Shangri La Center for Islamic Arts and Cultures.

“If you came to this house in her lifetime, you came to a party, you would not go into the front of that house,” Victoria begins, pointing to the plain white building I mistook for a visitors center. “That door would be locked. You would go through the garden area around the side, then you would go to the playhouse. She locked her house and kept her social life very private.” The house, I find out, made with plaster walls and a ceramic tile roof, was purposefully designed to be plain in appearance; it’s typical of Islamic homes, and thus begins my introduction to Islamic architecture.

doris duke shangri la hawaii
Duke’s marble-covered bathroom suite.

Once past the large wooden front door and into the foyer, I was immediately floored. The level of detail and the extent of the interior’s design is jaw dropping and unexpected, considering how greatly it contrasts to its exterior facade. My eyes couldn’t stop wandering the room, from the wooden ceiling, to the textiles on the walls, colored-glass windows, ornate lamps and wooden chests. Our guide quickly lists off details of the names of the objects and places they came from—many by boat—even pointing out more wonders my eyes hadn’t yet noticed. We could have easily stayed in the entryway alone for another 20 minutes, but we’re moved along because there’s so much more to see.

doris duke shangri la
All rooms surround this central courtyard.

The property is made up of two large buildings, separated by a 75-foot swimming pool, a tennis court, and public and private rooms centered around a large courtyard. Room by room, we see more elaborate pieces of art as our guide continues the tour: The large living room, with a ceiling Duke had commissioned in Morocco, also has a mihrāb, or prayer niche, in it from the tomb of Imamzada Yahya in Iran. There’s also 15th and 16th century Spanish plates, basins and tiles, among the many other historic items in the colorful and grand room. The Turkish and Baby Turkish Rooms which look like reproductions of a Syrian home, with an interior that was composed of carved and painted woods from the Quwwatlis family, an aristocratic family from Damascus. Duke’s bedroom and bathroom suite are large and exquisitely designed, having been inspired by none other than the Taj Mahal, which she visited and loved. There’s marble everywhere, on the walls, doors, bathtub, shower and floor with panels inlaid with semi-precious stones, sliding window jalis (latticed screens) and arched doorways.

The outdoor public spaces were some of my favorite, including the garden courtyard with artwork and large mosaics on its walls; the outdoor pool area with stunning views of the ocean and Diamond Head; and the sundeck, located on the roof, surrounded by tall white jalis. Victoria asks us to imagine how much fun it would have been to lie on the roof, listening to the sounds of an ‘ukulele while watching whales in the sea. It’s not very hard to do, though everything looks like a dream. 

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Duke’s bedroom suite.

We didn’t want to leave the poolside lawn when it was time to go. Our guide had already walked away and was now calling us for the second time, as we stopped to take more photos and look at all of the well designed structures and details around us. There was so much to see that our eyes wanted to spend more time soaking it all in because they didn’t want to stop looking, but we were persuaded and followed Victoria back through the house to where we started outside at the port cochère.

I was extremely surprised by the impressive collection of Islamic art inside the house’s humble exterior walls. It’s a collection worth seeing and appreciating a few times because it will take more than one visit to take it all in. 

Tours are offered Wednesday through Saturday at 9 a.m., 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Visit shangrilahawaii.org for information and tickets.

Categories: Oʻahu