My visit to Doris Duke’s Shangri La was the high point of a weeklong stay in Honolulu. Ensconced at the beyond fabulous Halekulani Hotel, our group swam with dolphins and sea turtles, ate authentic food in Chinatown, visited Leilani Palace, and hiked Diamond Head. These spectacular adventures were balanced out by little thrills like drinking the best Kona coffee as the sun rose with hundreds of surfers becoming more visible by the minute.
Shangri La, though, was truly an incomparable experience. Standing in the living room, marveling at the incredibly intricate Syrian Room, and gazing in wonder at the delicate craftsmanship of the carvings was educational and inspiring.
Doris Duke began building Shangri La on her first honeymoon in 1935, but standing in the rooms today they feel completely modern. Doris Duke, invariably referred to as “Miss Duke” despite her two marriages, was incredibly prescient in her love of and appreciation for Islamic art. It’s easy to imagine photographs of her rooms pinned to the inspiration boards of top furniture and interior designers all over the world.
The global chic of Shangri La has been appropriated by style setters the world over. She was the first, though. Her vision of recreating the wonders she had gazed upon during her honeymoon travels through the Islamic world never wavered—although it did continually evolve.
Our docent grew up down the street from Shangri La and regularly swam with friends and family in front of the house and grounds. Clearly smitten with Miss Duke, he explained her habit of rethinking a design or placement of a design element, even if the artisan who had created it felt it was finished. Touring the home with someone possessing firsthand knowledge of the property and its secrets is one reason why anyone with an interest in art and design, fashion icons, or just madcap heiresses should absolutely add a visit to Shangri La to their Hawaiian itinerary.
Through February 17, 2013, if your travel plans take you to the island of Manhattan rather than Oahu, Shangri La may be experienced at the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD). MAD’s exhibit Doris Duke’s Shangri La: Architecture, Landscape, and Islamic Art showcases Islamic art from the home and new works by six contemporary artists of Islamic background who were recently in residence there. The works from Duke’s personal collection are being shown outside of Shangri La for the first time in this exhibition, which is being organized on the centenary of her birth and which will travel after it premieres at MAD.
Wherever you have the opportunity to take it in, gazing upon the textiles, jewelry, and objects collected by this inimitable woman from the time she began building Shangri La at 23 through her later years is a glimpse into an extraordinary life.
A Tale of Two Islands
Oahu: Halekulani Hotel is a welcoming oasis of understated luxury in the middle of Waikiki.
Manhattan: Mandarin Oriental gives you the best views of Central Park and is close to MAD.
Oahu: Ala Moana Center is home to 290 shops, including an ultra-glamorous Neiman Marcus.
Manhattan: It’s boutique heaven on Madison Avenue, which also features Barneys New York.
Oahu: House Without a Key at Halekulani is the place to enjoy a delectable Hawaiian buffet.
Manhattan: Try Harry Cipriani for the Bellinis.
Oahu: shaved ice
Oahu: the most amazing sunglasses you can find
Manhattan: super chic coat
Get the Look
Oahu: First Dibs, because how are you going to get it home?
Manhattan: Madeline Weinrib at ABC Carpet & Home
Plan Your Trip
Shangri La is open for small group tours through a partnership between the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art and the Honolulu Museum of Art, which serves as the orientation center for visits to Shangri La. The Honolulu Museum of Art is located at 900 S. Beretania Street in Honolulu. To learn more, call 808-532-8700, or visit honolulumuseum.org or shangrilahawaii.org.
The Museum of Arts and Design is located at 2 Columbus Circle in New York. To learn more, call 212-299-7777 or visit madmuseum.org.
Doris Duke’s Shangri La: A House in Paradise by Thomas Mellins (Skira Rizzoli, 2012).