Four hours after I had flown from a humid Delhi, a maid in a white lace cap and apron straight out of Agatha Christie served me a cream tea before a log fire in my hotel in Darjeeling. The brew I sipped from a china cup was the eponymous “champagne of teas” of this Himalayan hill station.
Darjeeling, I discovered, wasn’t always associated with tea. In 1835 the British acquired the 7,000ft (2,134-metre) high ridge on which it perches from the rulers of Sikkim as a sanatorium to revive colonial servants drained by the heat of the plains. The retreat soon became a fashionable resort for British residents of Kolkata (Calcutta) eager to gaze on Kanchenjunga (28,169ft/8,586m), India’s highest peak. Tea arrived in the 1840s when Dr Campbell, a Scottish surgeon, planted bushes from China.
Darjeeling’s ornately gabled bungalows, bandstand and the faded photos in the Planters’ Club conjure the ghosts of those times. Yet a late afternoon stroll through Chowrasta, the main square, revealed a vibrant, cheerful place unencumbered by the past. Tibetans, Nepalese and Bhutanese mingle with the locals and Indian tourists as they promenade listening to musicians playing sarangis – stringed wooden instruments – or sit chatting on its green benches while on nearby Observatory Hill bells clang in the temple to Mahakala, worshipped by Buddhists and Hindus alike.
Until the completion in 1881 of the 51-mile Darjeeling Himalayan Railway – nicknamed “the toy train” for its 2ft-wide gauge and pulled by blue Glasgow-built steam locomotives – visitors completed the final stage of their journey in bullock carts trundling up the winding track still called Hill Cart Road.
I took the hour-long ride to Ghum, 1,000ft below – a rail journey like no other. Whistle blowing and soot and smoke billowing, the train rattled along at 6mph on a track laid along Darjeeling’s narrow streets, passing so close to houses and market stalls that I could have easily snatched a samosa or a woolly hat. Though the train’s a familiar sight, children still run alongside and everyone, passengers and spectators alike, smile. It’s impossible not to.
From Ghum I headed north to the 150-year-old Glenburn Tea Estate. The road was rough but the scenery luscious – broadleaved teak trees, clumps of giant bamboo, neatly clipped tea bushes clinging to almost vertical slopes and waterfalls spilling down the hillside. Wild ginger and citronella scented the air.
Next morning the estate’s manager Sanjay initiated me in the complexities of tea production, from picking the leaves to drying and then “rolling” them to release enzymes that cause oxidisation and caramelise the sugar and create “the nose”. Terroir, weather and season are, I learnt, as important as for any wine.
December, January and February are the only dormant months. Leaves picked in March and April produce “the first flush”: light, crisp and springlike, “with a hint of citrus”. May and June yield “the second flush”, judged the finest by most connoisseurs: “earthy like the smell of the first rain falling on parched soil with hints of chocolate and apricot”. July to mid-October provides the stronger “monsoon flush”, which is “full and ripe, suggesting a time of plenty”. The final productive weeks furnish the “flowery” fourth or “autumn flush”.
Fortified by my new-found knowledge I sampled various flushes with names from “Silver Needle” to “Moonshine”. Always make tea with water on a rising boil and never add milk to Darjeeling was Sanjay’s parting injunction.
Later I hiked through steep tea terraces to the Rangeet River, swollen with jade-grey Himalayan melt water and perfect for rafting. Butterflies flapped in the sunlight. With the help of my naturalist guide I learnt to distinguish a large yeoman from a popinjay and a striped blue crow from a blue peacock.
Seventy miles and seven hours of bumpy roads took me to Sikkim’s capital, Gangtok, but scalloped rice terraces stretching to the misty horizon, houses of woven bamboo and flower-filled forests compensated for any discomfort. Once an independent kingdom, little Sikkim – sandwiched between Nepal to the west and Tibet and Bhutan to north and east – has been part of India since 1975. Nevertheless, foreign visitors require a permit to enter. I showed mine at the border point at Rangpo on the Teesta River before beginning the ear-popping, eye-shutting ascent around multiple hairpin bends to the 5,545ft (1,690m) Rumtek monastery. Orange and guava plantations yielded to a bleaker terrain where Buddhist prayer flags flapped ghost-pale in drifting cloud.
Rumtek was built in the Sixties to replace a Tibetan monastery destroyed by China’s Red Guards and is the worldwide centre of the Buddhist Black Hat Sect. A throne as well as the black hat – reputedly made of angel hair and kept in a box to prevent it flying heavenwards – awaits the arrival of a new spiritual leader: the succession is bitterly disputed.
In Gangtok, a Sikkimese wedding was in full flow at my hotel, once the guesthouse of the king, or chogyal of Sikkim. The groom’s uncle offered me thumba, a powerful beer of millet and yeast.
The partying went on late but I was up early to walk through the mists to the Enchey monastery above Gangtok. The red-robed monks, ranging in age from seven to 70, were at morning prayers, voices rising from a murmur to full throated song and subsiding again, accompanied by the clash of cymbals, the blare of conch shells and long brass-bound horns and the hypnotic beating of drums.
My best and most panoramic view of Kanchenjunga and its surrounding peaks came in the hill resort of Pelling, another six hours to the west and just 27 miles from the mountain. After rising at dawn (again!) to watch the first rays of the sun gilding Kanchenjunga, I followed a winding muddy track up to Sanga Choling monastery. Founded in 1642, it is not only Sikkim’s second oldest monastery but also one of its loveliest, with delicate interior murals of figures dancing within rings of fire and outside the magnificent backdrop of the Himalayas.
From Pelling it was back through the foothills to Bagdogra for the short flight to Kolkata, where the Darjeeling tea I’d been drinking throughout my journey is auctioned. The rooms where the first tea auction was held in 1861 are long gone. Today auctions are still held every Tuesday and Wednesday in Nilhat House, a tall blue and white office building, even if much dealing is done electronically.
The tea sales continue to enrich a city that until 1911 was the capital of the Raj and where, Kipling wrote that “poverty and pride” existed “side by side”. His verdict still holds good. Day labourers gather on street corners hoping for hire and it’s one of the few places where men still pull rickshaws.
But many buildings indeed look proud from the pillared, porticoed Raj Bhavan – the former Government House – to the Taj Mahal-like Victoria memorial built of such dazzling white marble that during the Second World War it was tarred over to conceal it from Japanese bombers; and to the high court modelled so accurately on the medieval cloth hall in Ypres that, after the latter’s destruction in the First World War, Ypres’s officials studied plans of the court to reconstruct their own building
The century-old Grand Hotel still sits on busy Chowringhee, a thoroughfare that an early 19th-century grandee described as “an entire village of palaces”. Here to the strains of a string quartet, planters down from the hills drank the tea they’d grown, perhaps accompanied by a “Ladi-keni”, a sweet named after the 19th-century Vice-Reine Lady Canning and still popular in Kolkata.
My journey also ended in the Grand Hotel, sipping Darjeeling beneath an antique crystal chandelier so intricate and vast that every two years a specialist is summoned from Delhi to clean it. Just as Sanjay had instructed I didn’t add milk but allowed the delicate fragrance to evoke mist-filled valleys, lonely monasteries and of course the frozen heights of Kanchenjunga.
British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) flies twice daily from Heathrow to Delhi from £645 return. Jet Airways (0808 101 1199; jetairways.com) flies daily between Delhi and Bagdogra from £110 one way; between Bagdogra and Kolkata from £57 one way; and several times daily from Kolkata to Delhi from £115 one way. If you would prefer to avoid bumpy roads, Sikkim Tourism operates a helicopter service between Bagdogra and Gangtok (£50 for the one-hour flight).
British nationals require visas for India (in.vfsglobal.co.uk) and an additional permit for Sikkim. For convenience obtain your Sikkim permit in the UK at the same time as applying for your Indian visa or in Darjeeling, where it’s a painless formality. You can apply at the border but will need to provide photos and copies of your passport and visa. Additional permits are required for trekking in some areas.
I travelled with Greaves Travel (020 7487 9111; greavesindia.co.uk), which offers tailor-made itineraries in India. A 12-night tour to Darjeeling and Sikkim, including stays at the Glenburn Tea Estate and the Oberoi Grand Hotel in Kolkata, a return flight from the UK to Delhi on British Airways, all internal flights between Delhi, Bagdogra and Kolkata, most meals, transport and English-speaking guides, costs from £2,500 per person.
The inside track
The best times to visit are October/November for good views of the mountains and March/April for orchids and rhododendrons, though December to February can be lovely if chilly.
Temperatures rise and fall steeply depending on the altitude and time of day so dress in layers and invest in a handwoven woollen shawl from one of the handicraft centres for a modest £8 or so.
Take a good sunscreen and insect repellent – midges and mosquitoes can be a problem, especially at dusk.
If you want to ride the toy train book well in advance. There are only 45 seats and they sell fast.
Don’t waste money on expensive imported gin but sample Indian Blue Riband. Sikkim-brewed Dansberg lager is also excellent.
For books about the Indian Himalayas browse in the atmospheric Oxford Book and Stationery Co on Chowrasta in Darjeeling – a Himalayan Hatchards.
To sample and buy tea try Darjeeling Tea Corner, Chowrasta, or nearby Golden Tips.
Handicraft and curio shops are everywhere. The best are the Tibetan Refugee Self-Help Centre on Darjeeling’s Gandhi Road and The Sikkim Handloom and Handicraft Development Corporation at Zero Point in Gangtok. In Kolkata The Weavers Studio Centre for the Arts (0091 33 2440 8926; weaversstudio.in) has revived the complex art of making chintz, which requires a separate printing for each colour.
A walking tour of Kolkata (calcuttawalks.com) will open your eyes to the many facets of an extraordinary city often overlooked by visitors.
The best hotels
Be ready for treats, from “bed tea” first thing in the morning to snifters of local cherry brandy on arrival in quaint hotels recalling days long past. Prices vary according to the season.
Windamere Hotel ££
An enchanting collection of Raj-era buildings on Observatory Hill; originally a guesthouse for planters, with pretty gardens. An excellent bolt-hole for Christmas if you find yourself in India and don’t want to miss out on turkey, though the Indian food is excellent too (0091 354 225 4041/225 4042; windamerehotel.com; from £125 full board per night).
Glenburn Tea Estate and Boutique Hotel £££
Near Darjeeling, accommodation is in the original Burra Bungalow – the planter’s house – or the new bungalow set among terraced gardens on the 1,600-acre estate with magnificent views of the tea terraces and the mountains (33 2288 5630; glenburnteaestate.com; double full board from £290 per night, including full board, chauffeur-driven car from Darjeeling, Bagdogra or Sikkim, nature walks, a tour of the tea factory and excursions).
The Nor-Khill ££
Built by the King of Sikkim in 1932 as his official guesthouse, with blue brocade sofas, gorgeous painted pillars and ceilings and views towards Kanchenjunga (3592 205637; elginhotels.com; from £110 double full board per night).
The Elgin Mount Pandium ££
Once owned by the Sikkim royal family, facing Mount Kanchenjunga, with lovely grounds, friendly staff and a short walk from Pemayangtse monastery (3595 250756; elginhotels.com; £100 double full board per night).
The Oberoi Grand Hotel £££
Perfect peace and teak-panelled, marble floored imperial grandeur in the heart of the city with a palm-fringed pool and atmosphere in spades (33 2249 2323; oberoihotels.com; doubles from £260 per night).
What to avoid
Never drink the tap water or even brush your teeth with it. Most hotels provide bottled mineral water in rooms.
Don’t discount what local guides say about the time it takes to travel between places. Distances are quite small but roads are narrow, winding and in poor condition and rain can cause landslides.
Don’t forget to change enough money before leaving Darjeeling. Opportunities for foreign exchange in Sikkim are limited and some hotels are reluctant to accept credit cards.
Disclaimer: The views and information expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the authors and references. Elgin Hotels & Resorts do not take liability or any responsibility for the same.