Spread over a crescent shaped ridge in the foothills of the Himalaya and surrounded by emerald green plantations Darjeeling is synonymous with tea. In the 1830’s the area was leased to the East India Company by the once independent kingdom of Sikkim for an incredibly modest fee. Cool hills and high summer rainfall in the ‘Land of the Celestial Thunder Dragon’ proved to be perfect growing conditions and there are now more than 70 different tea gardens beneath the gaze of jagged snow-capped peaks.
Nepali tea estate workers moved here and swelled the local population adding to the mix of Himalayan cultures - we love this area for its fabulous people watching opportunities and shopping for the unusual. In the markets and bazaars you’ll rub shoulders with Newaris, Bhutanese and Tibetans and find everything from tightly curled fern fronds (a local delicacy) and bamboo bags to silver prayer wheels and yak wool rugs for sale.
Between March to May you can find out how tea pickers deftly pluck two leaves and a bud, or the intricacies of pruning in winter, before heading to a factory. In buildings straight out of a Victorian novel the mysteries of withering, rolling, fermenting, drying and sorting are revealed before you finally get to sample the ‘Champagne of teas’.
If a cup of Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe hasn’t perked you up, a breath of crystal clear mountain air should hit the spot. Trails meander through wooded hills of rhododendrons, magnolias and wild flowers beneath the magnificent backdrop of the Indian Himalaya including Kanchenjunga, the world’s third highest mountain. Alternatively jump aboard the ‘toy train’ on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway. Travelling at the break neck speed of 12kmph, and seemingly spending as much time going backwards or round in a circle as going forward, you can soak up the views along the way to Ghoom. Just 5km out of Darjeeling the train climbs almost 1000 feet in a matter of minutes. The Batasia Loop, where the track spirals around over itself through a tunnel and over a hilltop, is unforgettable.
See our itinerary for a suggested idea of how a trip to Darjeeling and Sikkim might look.
Andrea Hulme joins Natural High with a wealth of knowledge, first-hand experience and love of the Indian Subcontinent gained from more than 15 years living, working, volunteering and travelling in India, Nepal and Bhutan.