At the foothills of the Himalayas, this West Bengali jewel remains steeped with tea – and tradition, says Swati Basu Das.
Rightly termed the ‘Queen of the Hills’, Darjeeling is one of the subcontinent’s most romanticized destinations, located in the Indian state of West Bengal, at the feet of the Himalaya mountain range.
Soaked in British colonial heritage, Darjeeling reflects the influence of its history at every turn. From Makaibari, the world’s first tea factory established in 1859; the gothic-style buildings; the functional locomotive track laid down in 1880; and the century-old eateries founded in 1911, the legacy continues.
With the majestic snowcapped Mount Khangchendzonga as the backdrop to its tea-green slopes, Darjeeling is a sleepy hamlet that borders Nepal and Bhutan to its north.
Perched in the refreshing foothills of the Himalayas, it lays at an altitude of 8,515 feet above sea level with a spectacular topography ideal for trekkers, campers, river rafters, bird-watchers and nature-lovers.
A narrow rail gauge running through the mountain road connects the New Jalpaiguri Railways Station and Darjeeling. Huffing and puffing between the thick pine forests and tea gardens, the mini steam-engine pulls its coaches up the winding mountain roads. The perky locals and children hopping on and off the slow-moving train add zest to the panoramic views.
Darjeeling Mall, also known as ‘Chowrasta Mall’, is the town square where Darjeeling’s population comes to stroll and unwind amidst the greenery.
Darjeeling food is known for its extravagant culinary delights – an amalgamation of colonial British, Nepali, and Tibetan. Savour the classic scones, tarts, pies, jams, cakes, and chocolates at the century-old Glenary’s restaurant or head over to Keventers – a local landmark best known for its English breakfast since 1911 and is an all-time favourite of writers, filmmakers, and travelers who have trained their respective lenses on the region.
Or opt for a typical yet tempting local restaurant such as Kunga, which serves delicacies like ‘momos’ (chicken- and vegetable-stuffed dumplings) and ‘thenthuk’ and ‘gyathuk’ noodle varieties.
Once an extravagant escape for the colonial British, Darjeeling is a slice of paradise for travelers to the subcontinent seeking to beat the heat and hassle of India’s metropolises.
My favourite place- Home to Sherpa Tenzing Norgay (the first man to scale Mount Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary) this hill-town got its first mountaineering institute in 1954. Celebrating Norgay’s achievement, the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute is an educational and research centre for mountaineering researchers and trainees. A hallmark in the field of mountaineering training it’s a significant tourist attraction on the doorstep of the Himalayas. The institute has one of India’s oldest mountaineering museums displaying a rich collection of photographs, manuscripts, and trekking equipment belonging to famous mountaineers. The institute campus is surrounded by the Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park. Winner of the 2014 ‘Earth Heroes’ international award, the park is famous for conserving endangered species like the Himalayan red panda, Siberian tiger, snow leopard, Tibetan wolf, and other animals that inhabit the region’s alpine conditions.
Highlights- Accorded UNESCO World Heritage status, the snail-pace Toy Train in Darjeeling offers visitors a coveted experience. This ‘joy-ride’ through a two-foot narrow gauge is a two-hour roundtrip from Darjeeling to Ghum and back. Located at an altitude of 7,407 feet, Ghum is India’s highest railway station. The Himalayan Railway Museum (DHR Ghum Museum) exhibits the oldest toy train, the Baby Sivok, which dates back to 1818 and showcases the relentless heritage of Indian Railways. The towns of Melli and Teesta Bazaar are another captivating stopover near Darjeeling where the River Teesta gushes down the valley. It’s a challenging spot for adventurers keen on whitewater rafting the River Teesta with rapid levels ranging from Grades 1 to Grade 6 depending on the experience of the rafter and under the supervision of a trained guide. One of the world’s prominent tea provinces, the history of Darjeeling tea dates back to 1830. Cultivated across 87 designated gardens in the area, the flavourful Darjeeling tea is a GI- (Geographical Indicator) certified product. Staying at a tea estate and delving into the aromatic world of Darjeeling tea is worth the trip alone.
Souvenirs- Exclusive Darjeeling black, green, and white tea; Tibetan carpets, handicrafts and artifacts; or hand-knitted wool items made by locals are abundantly available at street-side stalls on the way to Darjeeling Mall Road or Chowrasta.
Getting there- Passengers travelling from Muscat can fly Emirates, Etihad, or Qatar Airways to Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose International Airport in Kolkata, then take a domestic flight to Bagdogra International Airport in Siliguri, West Bengal. Or, Air India operates direct flights from Muscat to Indira Gandhi International Airport, New Delhi where daily flights to Bagdogra are available.
Where to stay- Heritage tea bungalows such as Glenburn, Makaibari, and Cochrane Place offer an exotic stay. Or, book your stay at luxury resorts, boutique hotels, tea bungalows, and economical guesthouses through online booking sites such as Agoda, Trivago, or Booking.com.
1. Take a Toy Train joy-ride from Darjeeling to Ghum, and back.
2. Join a rock-climbing class at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute.
3. Trek to Tiger Hills to capture the captivating sunrise.
4. Stay at a tea bungalow and relish a fresh brew.
5. Battle the currents of the River Teesta while rafting through its rapids.