The correct way to conduct a tea tasting, my guide told me, is to slurp it noisily from a spoon and then exhale through the nose – the brew still in your mouth – to release the flavour.
Sound too fussy? Well, this wasn’t just any cuppa. At Darjeeling’s Happy Valley Tea Estate, I was treated to the champagne of teas. Like bubbly, Darjeeling tea can only be labelled as such if produced in one area. And, in much the same manner as a fine Moët, its superior flavour is prized the world over.
The Happy Valley Tea Estate is just a 20-minute walk from central Darjeeling, and the friendly locals pointed me in the right direction whenever I started furrowing my brow at the map. The mood of the town is a world away from the unrelenting heat and hawkers of most tourist centres in India – there is no pressure to buy, no rickshaws striking up a symphony of screeching horns and no wandering cows emitting guttural moans.
At 6,800ft above sea level, Happy Valley is home to Darjeeling’s highest tea factory, and is the oldest tea estate in the area. Founded in 1854, its hand-rolled tea is sold in Harrods. Not only does the combination of Chinese leaves and Darjeeling’s territory produce a brew of world-renowned delicacy, but the flushes – or periodic harvests of the leaves – also affect flavour.
“Think of it like the stages of growing up,” my guide told me. “The first flush is like a baby: it has lots of energy but is underdeveloped. The fourth flush is like adulthood: more mature, but mellower.”
I tasted all four flushes. I tasted black teas, green teas and white teas. All of them different, all of them delicious. It is impossible to get bored of drinking tea in Darjeeling. Where else could you get this high-calibre cuppa for a few pence?
But it’s as pragmatic as it is pleasurable. The bracing temperatures make a steady supply of tea as vital as a woolly hat and gloves. High seasons are from October to November and mid-March to the end of May, when few clouds obscure the panoramas and sunshine staves off the cold. I soon became a regular at Glenary’s, a café and bakery on the main thoroughfare, Nehru Road. Darjeeling’s colonial past lives on here, a red telephone box stressing the point. It’s from here I first glimpse Khangchendzonga, the world’s third-highest mountain, its snowy jags mystical in the sunset’s orange glow. I would go on to take countless pictures of it from various vantages.
Just wandering around this small town is entertainment enough. The main square, Chowrasta, is where people gather to munch momos (steamed Nepalese dumplings) from street stalls and shop for tea at Nathmulls. This little community is at once distinctly British-flavoured and exotic. Colonial houses and churches line the meandering lanes that also attract monkeys.
Taking a ride on the ‘toy train’ was a highlight. Built between 1879 and 1881, the 2ft narrow-gauge Darjeeling Himalayan Railway is a feat of engineering mastery, with several loops and zigzag reverses devised to give the train enough momentum against challenging Himalayan gradients. Today, you can ride the steam locomotive from Darjeeling to India’s highest train station, Ghum (7,407ft). Few journeys can match the views, which include your driver atop a pile of coal as he feeds the boiler. I also enjoyed the railway museum at Ghum, particularly an anecdote from Mark Twain – who spent time in Darjeeling – in which a railway employee telegrammed: ‘Tiger eating station master, what to do?’ It is unclear whether Twain was joking.
On my last night, I went to the restaurant above Glenary’s. It was filled with tourists from all walks of life – I can’t remember having ever seen such a varied gathering.
But then, in Darjeeling, what’s not to like?
Way to go
Nightly rates at the The Elgin Hotel start at about £78, half-board (elginhotels.com). IndiGo (book.goindigo.in) flies from Delhi to Bagdogra from £89 return, a taxi from Bagdogra to Darjeeling costs £30. Qatar Airways (qatarairways.com) flies from London Heathrow to Delhi, via Doha, from £415 return.