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Doris Duke’s Shangri La & the Honolulu Museum of Art: Hawaii’s Most Undiscovered Gem

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Shangri La is the most “undiscovered hidden gem” on Oahu. Usually when people are asking about hidden gems, they’re expecting me to tell them about some secret slice of beach that only a handful of people know about, but THIS is truly an unexpected surprise. 

Previously the home of socialite Doris Duke, Shangri La now welcomes visitors to see her incredible property including one of the most extensive collections of Islamic art in the US. 

Duke fell in love with the Middle East on her honeymoon and after deciding to build a winter home in Honolulu, she devoted years to the construction of the home and the collection of its decorations. 

The heiress to the American Tobacco fortune had something really special here, and if you have ANY appreciation for art, culture, and beautiful homes then I think this is a must do. 

You should be able to tell from the photos, but just to be clear, this isn’t a “museum” in the sense that it’s rooms of galleries with pieces of art on display. 

The house IS the museum and the “art” is all of the trimmings. The furniture, the decorations, and all of the architectural components are completely dazzling and make for a great experience. 

The setting alone, in the shadows of Diamond Head, is worth showing up for. 

And despite being this sparkling treasure of a spot, it’s surprisingly unknown. I rarely see it on any “573 best and coolest things to do on Oahu” lists. 

Here’s what you need to know…

The property can only be explored via a guided tour from the Honolulu Museum of Art. Tours are offered Thursday through Saturday and you’ll want to book them in advance as they usually sell out pretty quickly. 

Tours are at 9AM, 11AM, 1PM, and 3PM and all tours leave from the Honolulu Museum of Art where you’re shuttled back and forth between Shangri La. 

I did the 9AM tour (which I highly recommend because there’s no a/c at Shangri La) and here’s how the day went:

We arrived at the Honolulu Museum of Art (parking is $5 behind the Honolulu Museum of Art SCHOOL) about 8:45AM and we gathered on benches under the overhang until we were checked in and given our badges/stickers. 

Note: The museum doesn’t open until 10AM so you can’t go inside to go to the restroom before you leave for Shangri La, and there isn’t really anywhere in the area so go before you leave your hotel.

About 9:15 we boarded our shuttle and headed over to Shangri La. The home is located in a compact residential area near Diamond Head and you can only go in and out on the shuttle. 

We arrived about 9:35 and were greeted by the staff. They passed out fans which were nice to have while we were there so I can only assume they become essential later in the day. There are also restrooms near the entrance. 

We all gathered in the entryway to get a brief introduction to the property and the collection. 

One of the interesting distinctions we kept reading and hearing about was exactly what defines “Islamic art.”

From a sign in the foyer…

The term “Islamic art” encompasses a wide range of works created by artists and makers across cultures, geographies and time periods for a variety of religious and secular purposes. While faith in Allah (God) unites more than one billion Muslims worldwide, Muslims speak many different languages, are of many different cultures and live in many different countries. Local traditions figure strongly in Islamic art production Much of the art on display in Shangri La was made by or for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. This has led to a diverse, vibrant and ever-evolving set of artistic styles that comprise the arts of the Islamic world. These characteristics can be seen in the making, material, use, and/or form of an object. 

Anecdotally, we heard stories from some of the docents that indicated that certain elements of the home or the collections may be a bit controversial. Since Duke was not Muslim, she was only interested in the art and architecture in a secular way, but some pieces that she acquired have significant religious meaning to Muslims. 

So there’s an element of debate to whether it’s appropriate that some items are in the home and there are also some discrepancies between how she displayed certain pieces in her home and how they would have been featured in a home of practicing Muslims (i.e. certain pieces weren’t placed facing the right direction for prayer, etc.). 

 

Anyways, we had a little over an hour to walk around the property at our leisure. It’s not a guided tour, but the docents position themselves in different places and give little talks as people come and go from different rooms, but you’re free to come and go as you please. 

After we were finished looking around, we enjoyed water and ice cream sandwiches before loading back on the shuttle and heading back to HoMA. We arrived back at HoMA by 11:10.

Once we were back at the museum, we spent an hour or so walking through the exhibits. Admission to the art museum is included in the tour price. 

I was surprisingly impressed with the museum. Honolulu is such a cultural crossroads and the museum does a great job representing so many different styles and cultures. 

Besides a nice European Impressionist collection and plenty of Asian and Hawaiian art, my favorite part is the Georgia O’Keefe collection. She’s most known for her work in the American Southwest, but in 1939 she traveled to Hawaii with the Hawaii Pineapple Company (later the Dole Company) to work on a magazine advertising campaign. 

Reserve your tour of Shangri La in advance here.

More Photos of Shangri La

More Photos of the Honolulu Museum of Art

 

Want to read more? Don’t miss some of my most popular (and favorite) posts about Oahu:

If you’re trying to figure out where to stay, you’re going to want to look at my favorite boutique resort in Waikiki and the lowdown on where to stay on Oahu besides Waikiki. Plus I’ve got the scoop on how to avoid illegal vacation rentals and a roundup of where to stay in Ko Olina and reviews of the Laylow and Disney’s Aulani Resort. And a LOT more on Aulani like is Aulani worth it?, tips for staying at Aulani, how many days to spend, and the best things to eat and drink at Aulani

If you’re researching luaus on Oahu, I’ve written quite a bit. First, I’ve got a full breakdown of the best luaus (and the worst) on Oahu. Then I’ve got complete reviews of Paradise Cove, the Polynesian Cultural Center, and Aulani’s Ka Wa’a Luau. And if you’ve narrowed it down to the top two most popular on the island and still can’t decide, here’s Paradise Cove vs Polynesian Cultural Center

If you’re trying to put together an itinerary full of the best things to do, take a look at my best 5 day itinerary, and roundups of the best things to do in Waikiki, “secret” things to do on Oahu, plus my favorite things to do in Kailua and the windward coast, in Ko Olina, and on the north shore. And if you’re looking for food recommendations, I’ve got the best restaurants in Ko Olina and where locals eat in Waikiki

And last but not least, some of my favorite things on Oahu like Jurassic Park at Kualoa Ranch, Shangri La and the Honolulu Museum of Art, tips for visiting Pearl Harbor, easy hikes on Oahu, and the best spas on Oahu. And everything you need to know BEFORE you go to Oahu.

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