Where living gardens are concerned, nature often has the last word. Uber-heiress Doris Duke discovered exactly that when she created a private and very personal retreat, Shangri La, in 1937 on five oceanfront acres at the foot of iconic Diamond Head. The place was originally called Ka’alawai by Hawaiians, meaning literally “water basalt,” referring to the porous stone on this part of the island.
Duke’s awakening began two years earlier at the age of 22 when she and her first husband, James Cromwell, celebrated their marriage by circumnavigating the globe. The young bride discovered the beauty, mystery and complexity of the islamic world and spent the rest of her life acquiring and perfecting her own private vision of beauty. Shangri La was never meant to please anyone but “Miss Duke,” as she is always referred to by the staff.
It is hard to grasp the real meaning of Shangri La without having seen the estates she inherited on the East Coast – rough Point and Duke Farms. Shangri La was meant to be hers alone, without the need to impress anyone else – a place to retreat, restore herself and articulate her personal tastes.
Sharon Littlefield, the curator of Shangri La and someone who has worked there since it became a public museum upon Miss Duke’s death in 1993, tells us that it was a constantly evolving process for her. That applies to both the home and the gardens surrounding it, for it’s impossible to disconnect the two. With gardens, she says, sometimes things work and sometimes they don’t.
Every day, mini-vans drive through the unobtrusive gates and wind down a heavily shaded driveway into small a circular court anchored at the center by a large, old banyan. in the islamic tradition, the exterior of the house gives no hint of the treasures and grandeur within. The entrance, flanked by two large stone camels, is a windowless plaster fcade. An elaborate door anchors the center of what at first appears to be a small building. On it is written in arabic calligraphy, “Enter Therein in Peace and Security.” On either side of the entrance are beds of giant, healthy ‘ape (elephant ear).
Miss Duke’s love of islamic design was rivaled by her affection for the natural Hawaiian environment. Throughout her life at Shangri La, she tried to meld the two passions. islamic homes traditionally are built around interior courtyards filled with cool, relaxing fountains, plants, trees and birds. Often they are in dry, desert environments, and the gardens become calming oases. Miss Duke has done the same with a dry location at Shangri La, although on her own terms and with her own taste. Each garden on the property includes water features, vegetation, garden ornamentation and sometimes fishponds.
The central courtyard of the home separates the private and public rooms, and is planted with wandering iris. in the middle of the courtyard is a geometric islamic star fountain and a golden shower tree. Littlefield says that Miss Duke constantly played with the planting in this area to see what worked best. Grass originally covered the area that is now iris, and on the walls of the courtyard hung hapu’u (fern bark) with orchids and anthuriums. There have been dramatic changes in this area over the years, says Littlefield. The walls, which are covered with mosaic scenes, no longer are hung with orchids.
Miss Duke’s departure from islamic tradition is clearly seen in her embrace of the home’s ocean views. a series of terraced lawns, once lined with hau trees (they were removed in the 1970s) and spider lilies, descend from the main house to a 75-foot saltwater swimming pool and the Playhouse. This structure, which is a miniature version of Chihil Suntun, a royal 16th century iranian pavilion, anchors the property at one end. The Shangri La gardeners will soon be reintroducing red hibiscus to the pool area where there is now just bird of paradise.
Perhaps her most ambitious garden was the one conceived when she visited the Shalimar Garden in Lahore, Pakistan.
Here she copied the garden features in miniature. Mughal gardens are characteristic of South asia and known for their symmetry and elements of water, fragrance and light.
Originally planted with grass, birds of paradise and Chinese banyans, Miss Duke totally changed the garden plantings in the 1960s. She added brick pathways on either side of the long reflecting pool and sunken planters called parterres on either side. The more traditional cyprus and citrus trees also were added. Niches for oil lamps called chinikhanas can be lit at night with electric candles to produce a magical effect.
But nature, not man, tells the gardener what she can and cannot do. it was no different with Miss Duke and those who are left to care for her personal masterpiece. She continued until the end of her life to redirect and refine her vision of a perfect retreat. The gardens at Shangri La continue to evolve today with the tastes and means of its caretakers.
Reservations can be made to tour Shangri La by calling 1-866-DUKE-TIX, or online at email@example.com, A virtual tour is available at www.shangrilahawaii.org.