Discovering Shangri La: In Search of the Elusive Doris Duke (Oahu, Hawaii)
Shangri La, Doris Duke Estate
Most travelers will wax lyrical about Waikiki’s nightlife and unforgettable sunsets, and yet few know about the jewel that sits quietly and majestically on Black Point, a residential neighborhood near Diamond Head. Called Shangri La, it is the estate of the late tobacco heiress and philanthropist, Doris Duke. For three years, Peter and I have been trying to visit this architectural and artistic marvel. Open to the public as a museum since 2001, tours to Shangri La are conducted by the Honolulu Museum of Art.
Easy as booking a tour sounds, we either happened to be in Waikiki on the wrong day of the week or the the tour was sold out months in advance. Asking our hotel Concierge one year about the possibility of hiring a car and just driving there, his response was, “I’m sorry, Ms Ugarte, visitors are not permitted to drive or park at Shangri La or in the surrounding residential neighborhood.” Not wanting to miss out on seeing it this time around, I called the Honolulu Museum of Art from our home in Sydney (Australia) six months prior in order to secure our tickets. Indeed, Miss Duke was proving as elusive in death as she was in life.
On the designated day, we took a taxi from our hotel, the Waikiki Parc, and made our way to the Honolulu Museum of Art. Arriving promptly at 10:15, we joined 23 others on a mini bus. During the 20 minute drive from downtown Honolulu to Black Point, we were treated to a short film on Doris Duke and the construction of her estate. Arriving at a quiet neighborhood that was punctuated by security gates, pristine gardens, and lush lawns, we turned into a deceptively modest gateway. At the end of the long and winding driveway, situated on a magnificent 4.9-acre oceanfront lot that afforded uninterrupted vistas of the Pacific Ocean, was Shangri La.
Born in New York City in 1912, Doris Duke was the only child of American tobacco baron James Duke and his wife, Nanaline. So immense was the Dukes’ wealth that the newspapers christened Doris at birth, "the richest little girl in the world." Falling ill with pneumonia during the winter of 1925, James Duke died shortly after, leaving the bulk of his fortune to his only heir, 12-year old Doris. Cautioning her on his deathbed to "trust no one", this piece of advise would forever etch itself in the young girl’s mind. Thereafter, Doris aggressively avoided the spotlight, hiding from cameras and refusing interviews.
Shangri La was the one place in the world that afforded Doris solace, a sanctuary where she could relax and be herself. Constructed between 1936 to 1938, she traveled the world and commissioned and collected artifacts for her home, forming a priceless collection of 2,500 pieces of Islamic art. Gilt and hand painted Moroccan ceilings overlooked the living rooms, hand painted vivid tiles from Iran and Syria graced the walls, and marble walls inlaid with semi precious stones graced the bathrooms. In fact, so rare and valuable are some of the pieces that the government of Iran has been after the estate to return them to their country. As for Shangri La’s gardens, they blend the formality of an Indian Mughal garden and terraced water features with the intimacy of a tropical landscape. A 2-bedroom cottage for guests, called “The Playhouse”, is situated by the pool and was designed to be a reduced-scale version of the 17th century Chehel Sotoun in Esfahan (Iran). Amidst breathtaking built-in architectural elements from Iran, Morocco, Turkey, Spain, Syria, Egypt and India, one could almost imagine Doris Duke walking barefoot around her property, her three German Shepherd faithfully trailing behind her.
After one and a-half hours on site at Shangri La, touring the public rooms of the main house and portions of the grounds, it was time for us to go. I couldn’t help being filled with a sadness for the woman whose life, despite her unlimited wealth, was plagued by a string of failed relationships, paranoia, and distrust . Cut off from the world, she was bedridden by the end of her life and died under suspicious circumstances in 1993. Yet despite the tragedy, her magnificent legacy and vision live on in Shangri La.
Note: Tours to and from Shangri La are conducted by the Honolulu Museum of Art. As numbers of the tours are strictly limited, it is advised to book several months in advance. http://shangrilahawaii.org