Postcard from Honolulu, Hawaii: Islamic idyll

Money was no object when heiress Doris Duke created a homage to the Middle East in her Hawaiian home.

I'm standing in a spectacular courtyard. Open to the sky, it's decorated with numerous items from Iran, including 13th-century tiles and a six-metre-high mosaic depicting the Royal Mosque at Isfahan.

The scalloped edges of the roof surrounding the courtyard are supported by mirrored columns, and the central tree has been trained to copy the intertwined shape of the Lovers' Tree on one of the nearby Persian tiles.

It's one of the most beautiful displays of Islamic art I've seen, an exemplar of the balance and harmony found in historic homes from Iran to Morocco.

But below are the blue-green waters of the Pacific Ocean, with Polynesian kids jumping into the waves. Off to the right is the east face of Diamond Head, unseen by the tourists at Waikiki.

This is Honolulu, Hawaii. The house is Shangri La. It was completed in 1938 for Doris Duke, an American heiress whose life reads like a Hollywood movie. In her teens she inherited her father James Duke's vast fortune derived from tobacco and hydroelectric power. She travelled widely as an adult and fell in love with Islamic art on her 1935 honeymoon in the Middle East, then combined this passion with her love for Hawaii in the creation of Shangri La. In addition to buying original pieces of art and architecture, she also commissioned works for the house, with items from countries as diverse as Morocco, Turkey, Syria, Iran, Egypt and India.

The result transcends its role as a museum which was established when Duke died in 1993 and bequeathed the building to public use. Rather than a mere repository of art, it seems a work of art itself.

Duke decorated Shangri La to her own taste, adding her personality to the geometric artwork and ceramic tiles; though her precise motivations behind each room's decor remain a mystery. The receipts she kept have helped Shangri La's curators piece together the provenance of its contents, and also - according to tour guide Barbara - show she wasn't pilfering elements bought in the Middle East from their rightful owners.

There's no escaping Barbara or one of her colleagues for a quiet browse through the rooms.

As Shangri La is still in a posh neighbourhood, the only way to visit it is on a tour by bus from the Honolulu Museum of Art. Photography is forbidden and visitors are tailed by a watchful security guard.

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The interior is a fascinating monument to Islamic art and architecture. A rectangular foyer has coloured glass windows set below a painted inlaid cedar ceiling, created in Morocco and reassembled in Hawaii like a jigsaw puzzle.

Nearby, a magnificent Egyptian door is accompanied by copies of traditional lanterns. Seventeenth-century Turkish textiles hang on the walls. Syrian desks inlaid with mother-of-pearl stand on a floor of coral sandstone, the only local element in the foyer.

The most spectacular chamber is the Moroccan-style living room hung with beautiful items, including elaborate doors - even hung on the walls.

''When she ran out of actual doorways, she started hanging them on walls as decoration,'' says Barbara.

A large window looking on to lush gardens occupies an entire wall. An impressive piece of 1930s technology designed by the Otis elevator company, the giant window retracts into a recess below, joining room and garden.

Sadly the window isn't opened nowadays, due to curators' worries about the effect of Hawaii's infamous ''vog'', a mix of volcanic ash and fog which occasionally drifts over Oahu from the volcanically active Big Island.

The house's beautiful oceanside lawn with its Pacific views may cry out for a cafe, but no luck - once the tour is over, we'll be back on the bus to the unfashionable side of Diamond Head.

As I look out over the poolside cabana and former guesthouse, which in its heyday housed the likes of Elton John and the exiled Imelda Marcos, I feel a twinge of regret at Shangri La's public afterlife.

That pool was meant for swimming, that lawn to be partied on - and that huge window should be wound down to let in the soft Hawaiian breezes on this sunny day.

I rarely feel I could live in a house preserved as a museum - usually they seem impractical - but I could live here. With Doris Duke's ever-present spirit as my host.

Tim Richards travelled courtesy of Hawaii Tourism and the Oahu Visitors Bureau. shangrilahawaii.org

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