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In the 1930s book and movie “Lost Horizon,” Shangri-La was an earthly paradise where people led exceptionally long and blissful lives. During tours of Honolulu’s own Shangri La — the former home of heiress and philanthropist Doris Duke — modern-day travelers can discover a paradise in its own right.
As a young woman, Duke inherited $50 million from her tobacco tycoon father. In her early 20s, she married aspiring politician James Cromwell, and as they honeymooned around the globe in 1935, she began amassing Islamic artwork, a hobby that that remained her passion until her death in 1993. Today, her oceanside Oahu home — the design of which she personally oversaw — displays her dazzling collection of 2,500 international art pieces and objects.
Most visitors don’t know that Shangri La exists; it’s not visible from the road that hugs the base of Diamond Head. The only way clients can see it is on a guided tour that starts and ends at Honolulu Museum of Art. From there, guests take a 15-minute minivan ride to Duke’s 5-acre estate. (Tours cost $25 per person, and advance reservations are strongly recommended.)
On a recent tour of Shangri La, our small group entered the rarified world of Duke. Once we stepped through the massive front door, made in Egypt in 1900, we discovered an exotic kingdom. A Moroccan-themed foyer set the tone with its Turkish wall tiles and 19th-century Syrian trunks.
The central courtyard, surrounding a golden shower tree and star-shaped fountain, is “the heart of the home, where the interior and exterior come together,” according to our guide. In the living room, centuries-old Spanish ceramics and dishes play counterpoint to modern innovations such as a glass wall that tucks into the floor with the push of a button.
The dining room, a fantasy in blue, boasts an Islamic tent-style design, including a fabric wall that rolls up for unobstructed ocean views. There, Duke and her guests shared meals beneath a massive Baccarat chandelier once owned by Indian nobility.
Lingering on the home’s seaside lanai, our guide pointed out the stone steps that Duke followed down to the water to go surfing, one of her many passions. Gazing across the grounds, we saw views of her poolside playhouse, patterned after a 17th-century Iranian palace.
Duke’s opulent marble bedroom, called the Mughal Suite, was added to the tour in 2014.
It wowed our group with its displays of antique gem-studded Indian jewelry. In an adjacent room, we perused a gallery of photos documenting Duke’s many travels.
At Mughal Garden, the final stop of the estate tour, we imagined Duke and her friends strolling along its Indian-style brick paths past cypress trees and water features. While our 90-minute tour barely scratched the surface of Duke’s complex history and personality, it provided a rare glimpse into the life of an adventurous woman at once privileged, generous and wholly devoted to her Hawaii paradise.