It was the month of May in Delhi – a smoldering 45 degrees outside. No sign of rains with blisters of hot air making life very dull. I boarded my flight to Bagdogra, the nearest airport from Darjeeling situated at a distance of about 100 km. As I landed, I realized monsoons had already arrived here. The road from Bagdogra to Darjeeling was bad in patches, full of potholes, perhaps due to the rains. My car meandered through the roads with sharp hairpin bends and I saw dense clouds shrouding the valley with dark grey skies in the background. I rolled down the windows to enjoy the soft soothing air – such a contrast to the air-conditioned cabin air I was used to while driving in Delhi. Soon I began to get a glimpse of the vast and lush green tea plantations as the car made its way to the main town.
I had planned my stay at Windamere hotel, run by the Welcome Heritage group. A quaint property situated close to the ‘Chowrasta’ (mall road), it had retained its old world charm from the colonial times and had a great vintage feel. The walls of the building were painted light yellow, the windows pristine white and the roof dark green. I stayed at Tinker Belle’s cottage, situated at a short but steep climb from the main building. The cottage had a living room lined with old rugs, cane furniture, simple upholstery and dim lighting, a small kitchen with wall sized windows overlooking the lawn and two cozy bedrooms with bathrooms adorned with antiquated faucets.
I was pleasantly surprised to have felt the urge to switch on the room heater at night. While the clouds and sun took turns during the day thus shifting the weather from wet and breezy to sunny and pleasant; the evenings were quite nippy. Next morning, I woke to the heavy pitter-patter of raindrops falling on the roof. As I reluctantly got out of my cozy bed and peeped outside the windows, everything from the grass in the lawn to the thick leaves of the shrubs to the wooden fence was wet and pristine clean with the rain. Raindrops perched precariously on an old electric lamp hanging from the roof. Just then, I heard a knock on the door.
“Tea, ma’am,” the caretaker shouted.
I couldn’t have wished for anything better. A cup of freshly brewed warm Darjeeling tea, straight from the nearby plantations, was all I needed to wake up my senses on this wet, cold and lazy morning. No hassling through the city traffic, no pollution or heat – just me, the wet surroundings, the soft sound of raindrops with white clouds passing over the cottage and a cup of warm tea with biscuits. Breakfast was served in the dining hall in the main building downstairs. You could opt for English breakfast options like eggs, sautéed potatoes and grilled tomatoes with toast or South-Indian cuisine comprising ‘dosa’ with chutney. I was also served delicious ripe mangoes – the taste seemed so alien to me in this cold weather coming from Delhi where mangoes are reminiscent of soaring temperatures.
During the day, I headed to Happy Valley tea estate. Located about 3 km from Chowrasta, it is the nearest tea estate from the town. As the driver drove through the narrow town by-lanes and meandering downhill roads, I enjoyed the beautiful views of the valley shrouded with clouds. The tea estate is open from 8am to 4pm from Tuesday to Saturday. I took a guide’s help to explore the vast estate, surrounded by houses built on hill terraces and tall trees. A drizzle had started and I kept balancing my umbrella while making my way through the narrow slopes. Interacting with the female workers in the plantation and learning how to pluck tea leaves was fun, albeit not a simple task. The basket used to collect tea leaves, contrary to its looks, was very heavy to lift on the back. Later, my guide escorted me to the tea factory and explained the process of manufacturing tea. Plucked tea leaves were kept on elevated wooden beds for weathering inside the factory. Hot air from pipes was pumped to dry the leaves which were then processed further. I watched the remaining process through a glass covered area which involved rolling, fermentation (for black tea), 100% drying (for other tea types) followed by cutting, sorting and finally packaging. The guide also introduced me to concepts like first flush (harvested in March and produces gentle, light color tea), second flush (harvested in June; produces amber, full bodied tea) and white tea (a rare and expensive variety known for its medicinal uses.) I bought some packets of tea from the factory shop. Interestingly, the entire produce from the estate was exported, with Harrods in London being a prime distributor.
Post this, I headed to ‘Chowrasta’, the busy mall road full of shops selling tea, Tibetan woolens and trendy stuff like leggings and scarves. I visited ‘Nathmulls Tea and Sunset lounge’, run by one of the oldest and largest tea merchants in the region. True to its name, the lounge offered wonderful views of the sunset across the town skyline while I enjoyed an exquisite variety of Darjeeling tea served in a goblet to enhance its sparkling color similar to that of scotch whisky. The shop also had an outlet which sold various tea varieties along with a contemporary collection of tea pots and cups in metallic and ceramic, strainers and tea cozies.
As the sun went down, the street lamps were lit and I treaded back to the hotel. Dinner at Windamere was an unforgettable experience. Served in a grand dining hall, it was a relaxed and elaborate affair with the only lighting being that of the candles decorated on tables and the only sound being that of soft conversations between guests and staff as no phone calls were allowed. On the first evening, the pre-set menu included a sumptuous soup followed by ‘paranthas’ with local vegetable delicacies and dal, topped by a rich dessert of homemade lemon cake served with warm custard.
The sun rises early in Darjeeling and hence I was not surprised to find a swarm of morning walkers and health conscious folks thronging Chowrasta at 6 in the morning the next day. The sky was clear and the picturesque town hall stood out in the soft sunshine of early hours. I spent the rest of the morning basking in the sun in the open courtyard of Windamere that faced the hills.
Later, I went for a ride of the famous toy train. The round trip from Darjeeling to Ghum took me through the city while crossing small shops situated right at the edge of the railway track. The experience of travelling in a steam engine toy train with continuous whistle of the engine was unique. However both the stations, albeit being a heritage property lacked cleanliness. The train stopped midway at ‘Batasia Loop’, a point where the railway track double-loops on itself to adjust to the significant change in height along the route. There was a park full of visitors enjoying panoramic views of the town.
In the afternoon, I headed to Glenary’s for lunch, a popular eatery known for its old recipes and homemade bakery items at reasonable prices. I grabbed a seat next to the window overlooking the valley and enjoyed a sumptuous pizza that reminded me of childhood days when pizzas were baked using basic Indian ingredients. The place was very lively, full of people thronging to taste the savories. Like most restaurants in Darjeeling, women seemed to run the show here as well – whether at the cash till or behind the bakery counter. After all the action, I headed back to Windamere for high tea that I didn’t want to miss again. Served with homemade muffins and scones, the tea session was a quiet affair held inside a small room that opened towards the lawn.
A visit to the Himalayan Zoological Park was a surprise package. Very well maintained, it had a wide variety of animals that looked healthy, ranging from leopards to the Himalayan Black Bear. Post this, I visited the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, a highly informative place showcasing the history of mountaineering in India through an exhibition of equipment, trekking gear and other accessories used during various expeditions to Mt. Everest by famous mountaineers including Tenzing Norgay.
On the last day, I did a day trip to Kalimpong, a subdivision of Darjeeling district and a small town located 2.5 hours’ drive from Darjeeling. The drive was a beautiful experience through lush green forests and tea gardens. I stopped midway at a viewpoint called ‘Lovers Meet’ to watch the confluence of rivers ‘Teesta’ and ‘Rangeet.’ After refreshing myself with some chilled beer served with a local snack, I continued my drive. Situated at an altitude of 4,100 feet relatively lower compared to Darjeeling, Kalimpong’s weather was milder. I visited 'Gauripur House’, an old concrete house which once served as the home of great Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore and the unique Cactus Nursery, home to a vivid and colourful collection of cactus plants. Lunch comprised quick ‘Wai-Wai’ noodles at a small shack on the roadside before I returned to Darjeeling in the evening.
The rains did not give me an opportunity to view the spectacular Kanchenjunga and the sunrise from Tiger hill. Nevertheless, I got to experience a different beauty of this old town amidst relentless downpour with its serene tea gardens, colonial charm, everlasting taste of Darjeeling tea and the buzz on mall road. However, a lot needs to be done for the development of this town - from roads to hygiene, to give it a fair share of the tourism it draws.