DARJEELING The most magnificent hill resort in India

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DARJEELING The most magnificent hill resort in India

The roads had at some point been tarred, but were now in a very bad state of repair. And with no sidewalks, it’s shared with farm animals and pedestrians. As we neared the Himalayas the landscape changed to that of a tropical jungle. A snaking road up the mountain brought us to a viewing point where my driver stopped and left me to consider the aqua coloured Teesta River while he magic’d up a cup of tea from somewhere. We continued past two Buddhist temples and numerous colourful Gurkha villages then stopped at Lama Hatta for more tea.

If you order chai (tea) in India, you'll get it the way the local drink it – a grimy glass or tin mug filled with a sweet milky potion that’s made by filtering boiling milk through a muslin rag knotted around a handful of tea leaves.

Then there it was, atop a hill, my destination - Darjeeling. It had a shabby look about it, but in the chicest way imaginable as the streets were clean, homes painted vibrant colours and front yards immaculately swept. The smiling locals were genuinely happy to see me, as tourism, after their world-famous tea, is their next biggest income.

There was so much to take in - crisp air, glowing rhododendrons, miles of swelling hillsides covered in emerald green tea bushes, exotic forests of silver fir, the brilliant azure sky and the majestic snow capped Himalayan mountain range as a backdrop. 

It all goes to making Darjeeling the most magnificent hill resort in India; the nostalgic lanes, alleyways and market places just adding interest - like the Eastern Art curio shop on Chowrasta and the Nepal Curio House on Nehru Road, which is also where you’ll find the Manusha Emporium - a fixed-price shop selling Himalayan handicrafts, silk and hand loomed goods. 

There is a market off Hill Cart Road (next to the bus and taxi stand) for quality patterned woollen sweaters. I found a bamboo umbrella here – something of a collector’s item. For Tibetan carpets, the best place is at Hayden Hall, opposite the State Bank of India on Ladenla Road. 

There are also interesting curios to be seen at Chowk Bazaar, Supermarket Motor Stand and Mahakal Market. For good art go to Dorjee on at Ladenla Road.

Apart from the beautiful sweaters, cardigans, pullovers and the trendiest winter garments, there is also a vast array of curios and handicrafts. The Handicrafts of Darjeeling are famous and people usually buy them for gifting as souvenirs. However, tea is integral life blood of Darjeeling and must not be overlooked. A good tea merchant is Nathmull’s, near the Post Office on Ladenla Road.

Your guide book may offer to take you on many interesting trips and treks but for a truly unforgettable experience you must do the Darjeeling Himalayan Train which sedately rattles along at 7mph making an ingenious series of loops and zigzags through forests, past tea plantations, criss-crossing the main road through twelve villages and running alongside street fruit stands. The whole line is an engineering marvel and includes five switchbacks and four complete loops. The last of these, known as the Batasia Loop, is 3-miles short of Darjeeling and offers the best views for cameras.

The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, also known affectionately as the Toy Train, was built in the 1870s with narrow gauge tracks extending over 2,796 miles - the last 5-miles, between Siliguri and Darjeeling, offering the best views.     

You cannot travel to the top of the world without taking a trip on this outstanding example of innovative Victorian engineering (now a UNISECO World Heritage site). Mark Twain described his trip on the railway in 1896 “as the most enjoyable day I have spent on earth.” Where else could you take a train journey bringing you within arm’s reach of tea pickers and views of Mount Everest? 

One admirer of the train's British engineering was Mother Teresa who, the conductor told, heard God calling her to found a missionary in Kolkata, while using the service in 1946. 

If you’re only going to do one train journey in India, this is it - but if you don’t have the time or patience to do the entire nine hour journey from New Jalpaiguri, do the 40-minute tourist joy ride to Ghum, the highest station in India. And after you’ve mooched around in Ghum, head to JoJo’s, a small restaurant about two minutes walk from the station towards Darjeeling - they do excellent bowls of steaming noodles in soup. 

I met my Glenburn driver at a predetermined venue then bounded off to Glenburn Tea Estate, where my bags were waiting.

Glenburn is a working tea plantation and magnificent boutique hotel in a location so mystical it could easily be a Harry Potter movie set. Despite the perils of the journey it’s a gracious escape for the monied traveller.

There are two plantation bungalows, each with four spacious suites and a riot of bougainvillea encasing the verandas. I stayed at the Burra Plantation Bungalow, the focal point of Glenburn’s hospitality and home to generations of planters. All the suites are decorated in an elegant Cath Kidson style. Most have turn of the century four-poster beds with rose or wisteria etchings on the furniture and drapes, refurbished teak floors and authentic Victorian baths. Framed still-life oils and old maps are a constant, as are birds and butterflies that are delicately embroidered onto the linens. Most of the suites have private verandas with long views of the garden. 

Glenburn’s consummate hostess, Najma Ahmed, greeted me warmly on the veranda which is buried in deep red Mysorium blooms. She invited me to afternoon tea (a grand silver service affair) under the eaves, where I meet fellow guests.

In my three days at Glenburn I was treated to views and experiences that defy belief and my every indulgence was anticipated. I visited the Glenburn tea factory, popped in at a plantation school and was introduced to numerous bird species by Sanjay Sharma, Glenburn’s Tea Estate Manager. A five-mile hike to the river bank picnic site is a must.  A 4x4 is always on hand, should you not be able to make the return journey - but be prepared to sit in the back as Elsa, one of Sanjay’s three Labradors, is invariable on the front seat.

Evenings are for glamour and starts with cocktails and hors d'oeuvres around a bonfire. After a couple of drinks guests are guided indoors to the dining room where an immense candle-lit dining table, dressed in white linen, silver cutlery and bone china, promises an evening of fine dining. 

The menu (although limited in choice) is an exotic fusion of Indian, Asian and European and simply superb. Dinner at Glenburn is more than really good food, its excellent service, good wines, an eagle-eyed and attentive hostess and entertaining company, which all goes to making an unforgettable dinner at one of India’s most exclusive tables.

Grandness aside, what truly impressed me was the community work done in the background by Neilu Sharma of Glenburn’s Welfare Programme. Neilu actively oversees a team of teaching volunteers, runs reading libraries in the villages, supplies reading and writing materials to two local schools and overseas the running of a Nursery and Kindergarten.

On my final day in India I returned to Darjeeling for an afternoon tea at the renowned Windamere Hotel. Here I happened across a sharp, somewhat eccentric local, Rajah Banerjee – a fourth generation award winning tea farmer. He was making a tremendous fuss over how tea should be poured and drunk. It gave me immense pleasure to learn that my late Father was not the rough-neck my Mother claimed him to be when he drunk tea from his saucer. “Not at all”, said Rajah, “that is possibly one of the better ways to enjoy tea”.

As an African living in England I feel I’ve been stripped of many of my traditional African ways like walking barefoot and eating maize meal with my hands, or enjoying a brandy on the veranda at sunrise, or smoking a pipe. You may understand then why it gladdened my heart to correct the Dining Hall Manager at Harrods who sashayed up claiming “it just wouldn’t do, madam” when I slurped tea from a saucer. 

Getting there: 

A 2-hour flight from Kolkata will deposit you at Dogbagra, the nearest airport to Darjeeling. Here a Glenburn driver will transport you a further 55 miles to Darjeeling. This will take at least 4 hours as the mostly unpaved roads are rough, potholed and at times missing (ladies may want to consider packing a sports bra!) and are shared with pedestrians, animals and other road users.

Darjeeling guide: Sudan of Clubside Tours & Travel, www.clubside.in 

Darjeeling Himalayan Train, dhrs.org 

Glenburn Tea Estate, www.glenburnteaestate.com (Rates start at Rs11,000 ($220) pp and includes just about everything). 

Windamere Hotel www.windamerehotel.com

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