In the late 1930s, socialite Doris Duke, who came from a North Carolina tobacco family, built an unusual home near Honolulu’s Diamond Head. After traveling to India on her honeymoon, she became enamored with the region’s classical art and, over the next 60 years, she filled her Oahu property with more than 2,500 Islamic art objects.
Today, the Honolulu Museum of Art leads fascinating guided tours of “Shangri La,” Duke’s well-preserved home.
But that unique journey is only one of several ways to go back in time during a visit to Hawaii’s capital city. When you’ve had enough of the beach or shopping in Waikiki, book one of these three Honolulu historic tours.
Doris Duke built Shangri La, her 14,000-square-foot international-style home, as a private winter retreat on oceanfront land east of Waikiki. Completed in 1939, the property is furnished with elaborate Middle Eastern designs, contemporary pieces and traditional Islamic art.
Duke had the wood-lined reception room moved in its entirety from Damascus, while India’s Taj Mahal and Red Fort inspired the design of her sanctuary-like bedroom. The tented dining room, with a 1,200-pound Baccarat chandelier and walls swathed in blue fabric, opens onto a terrace facing the Pacific. Outdoors, a saltwater fountain leads to a swimming pool, guest house and spectacular ocean views.
The 2.5-hour Shangri La tour, offered Wednesday through Saturday, begins at the Honolulu Museum of Art and includes transportation to and from Duke’s home. Guides tell you about Duke’s life, provide details about the house’s design and construction, and introduce you to the symbolism found in the numerous artworks and furnishings. It’s a captivating walk through a unique era and one woman’s distinctive artistic vision.
How to book: Make advance reservations, as these popular tours book up early. Reserve on the Honolulu Museum of Art website or by phone at 808-532-3853.
Located in what is now downtown Honolulu, Iolani Palace is the only official royal residence on U.S. soil. Completed in 1882, when Hawaii was an independent nation, this ornate stone structure was home to Hawaii’s King Kalakaua and Queen Kapiolani. While you can visit the palace without taking a tour, the 60- to 90-minute guided treks, offered Tuesday through Saturday mornings, enable you to learn more about the property’s history and about life in Hawaii in the latter half of the 19th century.
Iolani Palace is surprisingly European in style, although many features, like the grand entry-hall staircase, which is crafted from local koa wood, were built with Hawaiian materials.
In the state dining room, the sociable king, nicknamed the “Merrie Monarch,” always sat at the center of the table to more easily talk with his guests. He installed electricity in the palace in 1886 — five years before the White House was equipped with electric lighting.
After the king’s death in 1891, his sister Liliuokalani succeeded him as Hawaii’s monarch, but just two years later, after unsuccessfully attempting to get approval for a new constitution, Queen Liliuokalani was deposed. She was eventually held under house arrest inside the palace. As part of the palace tour, you can visit the chambers in which she was confined.
How to book: Reserve your tour online or by calling 808-522-0832. You can also buy tickets in person at the Iolani Barracks on the palace grounds.
The Royal Hawaiian, A Luxury Collection Resort
Opened in 1927, Waikiki’s “Pink Palace of the Pacific” was one of Honolulu’s original resort hotels, designed in a mix of Art Deco and Spanish-Moorish styles.
The Royal Hawaiian’s historic tours, offered to guests and non-guests alike, take you back to the earliest days of Waikiki, when this manmade beach was marketed with the slogan “Artificial beach but authentic fun.”
Surprisingly, the Royal Hawaiian’s original guests didn’t want rooms with ocean views. Early guests arrived by ship, traveling at least a week from the mainland U.S. or more than a month from Europe. Apparently, after an extended voyage, the last thing these guests wanted to look at was the sea; the cooks, butlers, nannies and other staff who traveled with these well-to-do families were relegated to the ocean-view rooms.
As you walk through the gardens, hallways and public spaces, guides share stories of the hotel’s owners and guests while offering details about the property’s design. You’ll even learn the origin of the hotel’s signature pink exterior, which remains to this day, even as this historic lodging celebrates its 90th anniversary.
How to book: You don’t need a reservation for these free tours of the Royal Hawaiian, offered Tuesday and Thursday afternoons at 1 p.m. Simply meet your guide a few minutes before the tour start time outside the hotel’s Royal Hawaiian Bakery.