Magnificent Himalayan views, clear mountain air and the ‘champagne of teas’ add up to make Darjeeling and its environs a restorative hill retreat.
Spread over a crescent shaped ridge in the foothills of the India 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.
Nepalis moved here to work in the plantations 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 fresh 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.
For glorious short walks and inspiring day hikes you can’t do better than basing yourself near Darjeeling at Glenburn Tea Estate. Step out on foot without another soul in sight, save tea pickers in their villages or tending the neat plantations and explore verdant forests, rolling hills and river valleys either on your own or with a house guide. Discover flowers and medicinal plants or take a pair of binoculars to spot birds and butterflies, via the orange orchard, and stop to visit the convent and the Cluny Sister’s Church and School. In the late afternoon return to Glenburn to sit by the river, watch fireflies on the veranda in the evenings, a roaring fire and lamp-lit dinners. Mountain views are best during November and December and house-party atmosphere means this is a fabulous place to come to celebrate Christmas and New Year.
For longer, more challenging hikes in Sikkim and the chance to discover life in rural India, there’s little to beat staying in a village. Shakti Village Houses are beautifully converted for guests to take in their entirety with simple comfort and authentic style intact. With a local private guide you can join ceremonies in village temples and step into traditional Sikkimese lifestyle and hospitality that others rarely get to see.
Wherever you stay, don’t miss jumping 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.