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Doris Duke's Shangri La

Home > Hawaii > Places of Interest | Historic Houses | Exhibitions | Celebrity | Art
Published September 6th 2013
The estate the 'richest girl in the world' created
Doris Duke's Shangri La

Doris Duke was an American heiress, socialite, and philanthropist. Shangri La is the estate she created. It is a place where exquisite Islamic arts are juxtaposed against the lush and tropical landscape of Hawaii.

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Islamic tile mosaic and tropical garden at Doris Duke's Shangri La


Shangri La is eloquent of two of Duke's passions: Islamic art and the relaxed Hawaiian lifestyle. These passions were ignited during her honeymoon tour of the world in 1935, perhaps as a substitute for passion with the man she had married, James H.R. Cromwell.

The estate houses an eclectic collection of Islamic art; a collection that Duke herself assembled over a period of 60 years and that many say reveals the breadth and diversity of the arts and culture of the Islamic world. Others, however, have suggested that Duke's collection is nothing more than the product of frivolous and ostentatious spending. Whatever the case, Doris Duke's Shangri La is a place unlike any other.

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Enter Doris Duke's Shangri La: an unexpected and pleasing place


The five acre estate, which overlooks the Pacific Ocean and boasts views of Diamond Head, was constructed during the years 1936 through 1938, but was never truly finished. Over the years, Duke renovated and remodelled her Hawaiian retreat. The last major works–the installation of the Turkish Rooms–were conducted in the early 1980s when Duke was in her 70s.

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Doris Duke's Shangri La overlooks the Pacific Ocean


Today Shangri La is owned by the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art. It is open to the public through an education tour that is operated in conjunction with the Honolulu Museum of Art.

It is well worth a visit.

The 'Richest Girl in the World'

Doris Duke was beautiful, intelligent, and filthy rich. Born in 1912, the only child of an American tobacco tycoon, Duke was one of the world's first modern day celebrities. The media dubbed her the 'richest girl in the world' and rarely left her in peace.

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Doris Duke and her first husband James H.R. Cromwell. Photo from Wikimedia Commons. Author unknown.


Duke was independent, adventurous, unconventional, and an alleged seducer of men; accordingly, she spent her life the subject of scandal, gossip, envy, and adoration. She pursued a variety of interests: she travelled the world, surfed, and played jazz piano; she studied traditional forms of meditation and dance, bred orchids, and collected art; she worked as a journalist and as a horticulturalist.

Duke envisioned Shangri La when she was just 22 years old. She built her Hawaiian home from the ground up and filled it with pieces of art that gave her pleasure. Duke regularly spent the winters at Shangri La. It was where she hid from the world. It was where she surfed, paddled canoes, sailed, played Hawaiian music, and relaxed with her friends, including the Hawaiian legend Duke Kahanamoku and his family.

Duke died in 1993 at the age of 80. In her will, she provided for the establishment of the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art to own Shangri La and to promote the study and understanding of Islamic arts and cultures. Besides Shangri La, Duke's legacy lives on through the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, an organisation dedicated to medical research, historic preservation, environmental conservation, and the rights of children and animals.

The Estate

Doris Duke built her 'paradise on earth' on a five acre oceanfront property in Honolulu that she purchased in 1936. The construction of Shangri La took around two years, involved around 150 workmen, and cost around US$1.4 million. It was the most expensive home built in Hawaii at the time.

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The plain entrance belies the intricate beauty within Doris Duke's Shangri La


It is not the size of Shangri La that impresses, but rather the natural and man-made beauty that is evident everywhere, from the sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean and Diamond Head; to the intricate architectural features and works of art; to the immaculate gardens with fountains, fish ponds, and lush vegetation.

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Mughal-style garden at Doris Duke's Shangri La


Shangri La consists of two large whitewashed buildings that are separated by a 75 foot (25 meter) swimming pool. One building is the main house, and the other is a guesthouse, known as the 'Playhouse'.

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The Playhouse and swimming pool at Doris Duke's Shangri La


As well as Islamic art, the focus of Shangri La is on outdoor living, relaxation, and play. There are lanais (roofed patios), courtyards, a lap pool with diving board, a tennis court, a yacht basin, and direct access to the ocean.

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Ocean frontage and yacht basin at Doris Duke's Shangri La


The Art

Doris Duke amassed around 3,500 pieces for Shangri La making her collection one of the largest Islamic art collections in the United States. One of the significant features of Duke's collection is its diversity. The objects are formed from various media, including ceramic, textile, paper, stone, and glass; and they were assembled over a period of 60 years from all corners of the Islamic world. They represent different lifestyles–court, city, and village–as well as different eras. The collection contains art work from the early period of Islamic expansion in the 7th century as well as modern works produced in the 20th century.

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A peak in to the living room at Doris Duke's Shangri La. The retractable glass wall descends to the basement.


Duke's vision for Shangri La was to immerse herself in beauty, and she selected pieces for the pleasure they gave her above all else. The presentation of the art at Shangri La is unusual in that the objects are not categorised and organised as they would be in a museum. Rather, pieces such as door frames and fireplace surrounds are used for their original architectural functions, and other objects are positioned for maximum aesthetic value.

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The jalis (screens) in Doris Duke's bedroom at Shangri La slide open and shut to provide light, air, and privacy.


The most important piece at Shangri La is the mihrab from the tomb of Imamzada Yahya at Veramin, Iran, dated 663 A.H. (1265 A.D.). A mihrab is a recess in a wall that indicates the direction of Mecca (and therefore the direction of prayer); however, at Shangri La, the mihrab does not face Mecca indicating it was not used for religious purposes. The piece is significant because of its age and size, and because it is signed by the famous potter Ali ibn Muhammad ibn Abi Tahir.

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Floral motifs and geometric patterns are two themes of Islamic art represented at Doris Duke's Shangri La


The Tour

To visit Shangri La you must book a tour through the Honolulu Museum of Art. I booked my ticket online. This was easy and is marginally cheaper than booking over the phone. The calendar feature on the online booking page clearly shows the tours with availability and those that are sold out. I recommend booking in advance. The tours are popular and tickets often sell out, especially during holiday periods.

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This friendly guard will keep you from straying from the pack when you visit Doris Duke's Shangri La


The tour begins at the Honolulu Museum of Art. When I checked-in at the front desk, I was directed to the Arts of the Islamic World gallery to join my group and watch a 10 minute film Creating Shangri La about the estate and Doris Duke. We were then ushered out a side gate and into a minivan. The drive to Shangri La takes approximately 15 minutes, depending on traffic.

When we arrived at Shangri La, we were separated into two groups of twelve and were allocated a guide. Our guide was fabulous; she was enthusiastic and informative, and within a short time she had us enthralled by the estate, the art work, and, in particular, the amazing woman behind it all.

As our guide led us through the public rooms of the main house and parts of the grounds, she shared with us information about the pieces of art, the history of the estate, and Islamic art generally. For me it was a thought-provoking introduction to Islamic art. The one and a half hours we spent on-site passed in a flash. I look forward to touring the estate again when I am next in Hawaii.

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Our group in the garden fronting the ocean at Doris Duke's Shangri La
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Why? Immerse yourself in beauty while you learn about the art and culture of the Islamic world
When: Tours are run Wednesday through Saturday at 9am, 10:30am, and 1:30pm. Reservations are required. Book online: http://honolulumuseum.org/ (transaction fee: $1.50). Book by phone: 808-532-3853 (transaction fee: $2).
Phone: 808 532 3853
Where: Tours begin and end at the Honolulu Museum of Art at 900 S Beretania St, Honolulu. Visitors are transported to and from Shangri La in minivans.
Cost: General admission-$25 Hawaii residents-$20 Children under the age of 8 are not permitted on the tour. Price includes admission to the Honolulu Museum of Art and its permanent exhibitions.
Your Comment
Two contrasting lifestyles, but they fuse together really well.
by Bryony Harrison (score: 4|11431) 1473 days ago
I've been here and it was absolutely amazing.
by Nadine Cresswell-Myatt (score: 3|4591) 1308 days ago
Wow - amazing!
by Karina Bryer (score: 2|247) 1473 days ago
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