The tea that made Darjeeling city famous only arrived in this hill station in the mid-19th century, soon contouring these steep slopes in rows of beautiful emerald green. After their success in Assam, it didn’t take the British long to realise the potential of Darjeeling in India. In colonial times the town became a popular summer retreat of the East India Company when escaping the fierce heat of Calcutta and it had a famously rarefied social life. Darjeeling’s cool, sweet climate – perfectly suited to cultivating tea – still attracts huge numbers of visitors, partly because of its quirky colonial charms and partly because of its views.
Located in the north-easterly state of West Bengal state, in the Himalayan foothills, Darjeeling’s altitude sits on a ridge of 2,200 metres above sea level, almost on Nepal’s eastern border, so its views are virtually unbeatable. A jagged wall of snow-capped Himalaya peaks, including Kanchenjunga, one of the highest peaks in the world, lies directly opposite. One of the best spots for snowy mountain views on a Darjeeling trip is nearby Tiger Hill Observatory, just outside of town. Be sure to make an early morning visit to witness the sunrise over the mighty peaks of Mount Everest and the Kanchenjunga range. There are plenty of adventurous trekking options within reach of Darjeeling, including Singalila Ridge Trail, an hour and a half west, and the town is popular stop for trekkers heading to Sikkim, further north into the Himalayas.
Darjeeling city is scattered with colonial buildings and it retains much of its former charm and character. A good place to start a town tour is the Mall, at the centre of the old Victorian resort, where you can shop for local crafts in the town’s steep and winding bazaars, which are filled with an assortment of Himalayan products and people from across Sikkim, Nepal, Bhutan and Tibet. Aside from the colonial-era architecture, you’ll find several Buddhist monasteries dotted around, including the Bhutia Busty Monastery, Old Ghoom Monastery and Dali Monastery, the biggest monastery in the region. Also not to be missed is the fascinating Tenzing Norgay Himalayan Mountain Institute, which houses some of the kit and equipment used in early Everest expeditions.
A highlight of a Darjeeling trip is a ride on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, affectionately known as the “Toy Train”, a 2 ft. narrow gauge railway which runs from Siliguri to Darjeeling. First opened in 1881, it is still powered by a steam engine and it is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The journey from Darjeeling to Ghoom takes an hour each way, passing through stunning scenery and small villages.
About an hour’s drive from Darjeeling, the charming Glenburn Tea Estate offers an extremely rewarding experience, with its stunning Himalayan views and long history. Guests can cosy up in old planter’s bungalows and enjoy cream teas by the fire, white gloved service, hot water bottles in bed and refreshing tea plantation walks. Here you have the chance to explore a working tea estate, interact with estate workers and learn to pluck ‘two leaves and a bud’. In Darjeeling, tea is still produced by the orthodox method as opposed to the ’curling, tearing and crushing’ method used on the plains.
The traveller sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see.
G. K. Chesterton
- Leslie Siben, India
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