Letter from Hawaii: A Visit to Shangri La

Posted on 25 January 2011

Shangri La interior.

By Tom Passavant

Here’s a radical proposal for spending some quality time in Honolulu: head indoors. After all, it does occasionally rain in the islands (mostly in winter), and when it does, there are some very worthwhile alternatives to sitting in your hotel room watching reruns of Blue Hawaii. Honolulu has a handful of museums and galleries that are well worth a visit, even when the sun is shining. The biggie here is the Bishop Museum, with its fascinating and well-narrated displays of cultural artifacts housed in a newly-restored wood-lined Hawaiian Hall. The Hawaii State Art Museum, in the heart of downtown, offers galleries filled with iconic works like Herb Kane’s famous painting, The Discovery of Hawaii, along with superb contemporary wood and ceramic pieces. And both the Honolulu Academy of Arts and the Contemporary Museum offer intriguing, well-curated shows.

But perhaps the biggest lure is Shangri La, the estate of tobacco heiress and art collector Doris Duke (1912-1993). It’s hard to say which aspect of Shangri La is the most spectacular: the five-acre grounds awash with tropical foliage; the house itself, set smack on the ocean in Honolulu’s most desirable residential neighborhood, or the collection of Islamic art that Duke spent nearly 60 years accumulating, much of it purchased for specific settings in and around the property. At least once, she outbid the Metropolitan Museum of Art for some treasure.

The pool.

From the outside, Shangri La, which was built in 1937, gives little hint of the splendors revealed the moment you pass through the modest wood door. From the entry foyer, with its intricately gilded wood ceiling, fantasia of painted tiles, and stained glass, to the atrium with its fountain and tiled panels, and beyond, the house is filled with a lifetime’s worth of passionate collecting forays to Spain and Morocco, Egypt and Turkey, Iran and Iraq, and many other countries. Miss Duke (as the well-informed guides invariably refer to her) not only had the means to buy whatever she wanted, but was lucky enough to do her shopping at a time when acquiring an entire room in a Syrian palace and having it shipped to Hawaii wasn’t much more difficult than ordering a few books on Amazon today.

What’s especially pleasing about Shangri La is its livable scale. This is no San Simeon, but rather a Hawaiian vacation home where you can easily imagine the owner cavorting in her 75-foot saltwater pool with the five Kahanamoku brothers, including the Olympic swimming champion Duke Kahanamoku, who also enjoyed surfing with the rangy, athletic Doris. The two-story living room is airy and bright, featuring a wall of glass that frames the view of the ocean and, remarkably, opens completely by descending into the basement at the push of a button. As with so many aspects of Shangri La, it’s exactly what you would have done if you had the wealth of a small nation and very good taste in the 1930s.

Doris Duke, with surfing legend Duke Kahanamoku far right.

Small group tours of Shangri-La are by reservation only on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Booking a week or two in advance is highly recommended. All tours begin and end at the Honolulu Academy of Arts, and the $25 price includes a shuttle to the estate, the tour, and museum admission. (Don’t miss the Academy’s terrific gift shop.) More information is available at 866/385-3849, honoluluacademy.org, and shangrilahawaii.org.

Tom Passavant is a former editor-in-chief of Diversion magazine. Now a freelance travel and food writer based in Colorado and Hawaii, his work has appeared in Aspen Magazine, Gourmet, Four Seasons Magazine, Town & Country Travel, ForbesTraveler.com, Ski, Powder, Luxury Living, and many other places. He is the co-author of “Playboy’s Guide to Ultimate Skiing.” A former president of the New York Travel Writers Association, Passavant has won a Lowell Thomas Award for his travel writing and has served as judge for the James Beard Journalism Awards. See more of Tom’s work at TomPassavant.com.

3 Responses to “Letter from Hawaii: A Visit to Shangri La”

  1. Donna Hull says:

    It’s always good to have a few travel ideas handy for when it’s time to get out of the sun. I’ll be adding a visit to Shangri La to my “visit Oahu list.” Enjoyed your article.

  2. Sarah S says:

    first visit and I just wanted to stop by to say hello to everyone


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