Hawaii and Islamic Art are rarely placed in the same sentence—unless, that is, you’re speaking of Doris Duke’s incomparable Shangri La. Located near Diamond Head on the ever-dazzling island of Oahu, this homage to another world is one of Hawaii’s most intriguing experiences. Here’s all you need to know about Shangri La—and why it should be a must on your next Oahu vacation:
The who here would be Doris Duke—the famed tobacco heiress and philanthropist, once known as “The Richest Girl in the World,” who fell radically in love with Hawaii in 1935 while traveling the world with her diplomat husband, James Cromwell. The marriage was short-lived but Duke’s fascination with Hawaii was eternal. She purchased property at the age of 22 in the residential district of Oahu’s Kaalawai, where she built a mansion from the ground-up, ultimately naming it “Shangri La” after the idyllic town in James Hilton’s novel, Lost Horizon. The house’s exterior was and remains modest, but its interior was (and is) its antithesis: sparkling, sumptuous—and almost surreal in its uniqueness.
That interior partially comprises what’s now known as the Shangri La Museum of Art, Culture, & Design—an opulent and astonishing museum of the art and antiquities Duke collected in her travels to Syria, India, Iran, Spain, Morocco, Egypt, Turkey, and Southeast Asia. Think: a reception room lined with red Iznik tiles. A main house with sandstone floors made of ocean coral. A prayer niche from the tomb of Imamzada Yahya in Iran. Ornate lamps and wooden chests. Koranic calligraphy. A glorious fountain surrounded by mirrored columns and a room “lifted” from an aristocratic family in Damascus. The museum also showcases a bathroom inlayed with marble and precious stones, and tiled mosaics featuring the likes of gazelles and tigers. Add to this a columned “playhouse” that mimics Iran’s Chehel Sotoun’s and was used as a guesthouse in Duke’s days, and a Mughal tent comprised of 453 yards of fabric that were custom-made in India. Baccarat crystal chandeliers, Moorish art, and elaborately-carved doorways are just a few of the other details that have made this place noteworthy. Images of Duke’s riveting past abound as well, including a pool, a tennis court, and a surfboard rack that speaks to the fact that she became an avid surfer after meeting the other famed Duke (as in Kahanamoku). In sum, Shangri La is a wild and striking reflection of Duke and her evolving taste and fascinations—what the Smithsonian called “one of the most spectacular collections of Islamic art in America”—and an absolute extravagance for your eyes to drink in on a visit.
Shangri La got its start in 1936 with the help of architect Marion Sims Wyeth. (While the property itself was purchased for a mere $100,000, the house was constructed to the tune of $1.4 million.) The 14,000-square-foot building’s structure was concluded in 1939, and Duke spent the next 60 years commissioning and collecting artworks for the space, ultimately accruing over 3,500 objects. Duke passed away at the age of eighty in Los Angeles, leaving behind, in her will, the creation of the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art. Shangri La opened to the public as a museum in 2002, and has since become one of Oahu’s biggest tourist attractions. Tours are offered Wednesday through Saturday, at 9am, 10:30am, and 1:30pm.
Shangri La is situated on a 4.9-acre parcel of land in what’s known as “Black Point” near Diamond Head. Tours to Shangri La start 5 wiles west at the Honolulu Museum of Art—itself a splendid space in Hawaii’s state capital. Guests are then ferried to Shangri La, 15 minutes away, aboard a 25-seat passenger bus.
Tickets to Shangri La must be purchased well in advance (they often go fast), and the tour lasts two and a half hours. (Do note that individual access to the museum is not permitted.)
Roughly an hour and a half of this visit is spent on the grounds of Shangri La, where you’ll have the chance to take in the public rooms and portions of the lushly-landscapes grounds. Here, you’ll find the Entry Courtyard with a mural by Bahia Shehab—an artist, designer, and activist from Cairo—and the citrus, poinsettia, and cypress-filled “Mughal” garden, a smaller-scale replica of the royal gardens Duke visited on her travels to Delhi and Agra.
In addition to tours, the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art offers scholar-in-residence and artist-in-residence programs at the Honolulu Museum of Art.
General admission is $25.00—a price that includes admission to the Honolulu Museum of Art, the Doris Duke Theater (which features foreign and independent films), and the museum’s permanent exhibitions.
Can’t make it to Oahu to see Hawaii’s most dramatically-architectural home? Shangri La has a virtual tour on their site; you can also check out the coffee table book, Doris Duke’s Shangri La: A House in Paradise, which features gorgeous photos of Duke’s unbeatable collection.
“Doris Duke’s encounters with the Islamic world were transformative and Shangri La is her paean to the places and traditions she loved—a story told in many voices and from many perspectives,” says Executive Director of Shangri La, Deborah Pope. As Pope also says, “Duke recognized Shangri La’s fluid identity, paying homage to a pan-Islamic world while simultaneously embracing modern style and innovation. Those juxtapositions and paradoxes are the essence of Shangri La.” In the end, the museum and the legacy Duke left behind has also added to the essence of Oahu—an island that, much like Shangri La, is as dynamic as it is stunning.
25 Things to do on Oahu
The sheer number of things to do on Oahu are enough to make even the most organized traveler’s head spin. With that in mind, we’ve narrowed down Oahu’s musts to 25 so that you can experience the extent of “The Gathering Place’s” wonder:
How absolutely fascinating thank you for sharing this part of the history, I have been visiting this island for 25 + years I never know about this wonderful place so I’ll be visiting it in my next trip later this year thank you so much
I’m hoping the tour will reopen in time for my trip this June/July. Four of us want to go.
Looking for 2 tickets June 3 or June 5. I’m an Infectious disease doctor who after a long. long Covid year will be in town for a few days and hoped to see it, but maybe not open yet? Hard to tell from the internet. Best, Dr Mary Louise Scully