by Michele Kayal
photos by David Franzen
In one of Honolulu’s ritziest neighborhoods, by the ocean at the foot of Diamond Head, an unassuming wooden door serves as a portal between worlds. On one side lies our familiar tropical island; on the other, a Middle Eastern wonderland.
This is Shangri La, the five-acre estate built by famed tobacco heiress Doris Duke as an homage to Islamic art and architecture. Duke willed the sensational seaside manor to the public good, and now, ten years after her death, Shangri La is open to visitors for the first time, under the auspices of the Honolulu Academy of Arts.
Shangri La’s beauty is marvelously layered. There is the living room’s glittering 13th-century wall niche; the dining room’s tent-like interior; the exuberant "Turkish Room," with its geometric fountain and Ottoman-era ceramics; the backyard "playhouse" modeled after a 17th-century Iranian pavilion; the Mughal gardens; and a courtyard that shimmers with mirrored columns. If you’re not looking closely, the estate’s overall grandeur can obscure its spectacular individual pieces, like the Syrian chests inlaid with mother of pearl; the ceramic pieces from Moorish Spain; or the filigreed brass lamps from Egypt. In all, the home’s 3,500 treasures make up one of the most diverse collections of Islamic art in the United States.
Despite all of this luxury, Shangri La is also surprisingly homey. The living room’s corduroy couch is eminently floppable, and the courtyard’s multicolored bougainvillea flourish in plain, black plastic pots—just as Duke left them. Tours of Shangri La run six times a day from Wednesday through Saturday, and are limited to twelve people at a time. Tickets are $25, including transportation from the Academy of Arts, where a recently refurbished Islamic art gallery serves as a staging site. For reservations, call 1-866-DUKE-TIX, or go to honoluluacademy.org.