India: Darjeeling is More Than Tea

Written by  Rita Cook

ASIA IndiaIt’s not what I expected  For a moment, I am reminded of all those descriptions I have read about India’s Darjeeling. My first thought is of tea, which I discover is just a very small percentage of the charm of this former British colonial outpost. I knew to expect the lure of old traditions, but it’s much more.
I’m fascinated by the sights I see as the car climbs the 6,710-feet to get to this place above the clouds. A place that has been calling my name for years. As the road winds perilously closer to the top, I look out one window to see the Darjeeling Himalayan Railroad train (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) blowing its black smoke. Out the other car window, I see the local inhabitants, some warming themselves with small coal fires in tiny pans on the edge of the mountain. When I finally reach my destination, I am remarkably enchanted.

Darjeeling Enchants
The city is often referred to as the Queen of the Hill Stations. The name Darjeeling actually means Land of the Thunderbolt.
This place is not what I expected at all, but I actually didn’t know what I was expecting. If you listen closely in the morning you can hear the Buddhist monks chanting. The sound just adds to the appeal of this place that is like no other I have visited in my travels. It tastes good, it feels good and the tradition is worth the trek to the top. Here, I feel I am at the top of the world. While in the Himalayan Mountains, I get a glimpse of Mt. Everest. I am told this is an unlikely sighting. So, the top of the world seems to like me.
After an early morning wakeup, I am nudged from the hotel as the dew still sets on the leaves before sunrise. It is my second day in Darjeeling and I am off to Tiger Hill to watch the sun rise over the magnificent Himalayans. The clouds can sometimes ruin the show and you won’t see a thing. Not so for me; I saw Mt Kangchenjunga first, the third highest peak in the world.
In order to see this stunning show, you must not only get up at the crack of dawn, but then take an SUV ride to the top where Tiger Hill is situated. Seeing the mountaintop peek her head out of the clouds to say hello made it worth all the effort to rise and shine so early. Gold, red, orange and pale yellow, this mountain is proud, and she shows you why with this stunning morning display. If it is a clear day (as it was when I was there) you also have a chance to see Mt. Everest looming in the background, as I was lucky enough to see. The mountain is definitely expecting to hear some applause from the crowd for showing his face. I felt very fortunate that morning.

Other Must-See Sights
While in Darjeeling, I suggest visiting the Batasia Loop of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway line. This is also known as the war memorial and overlooks the mountain range.
You will then want to visit the Ghum Monastery, more formally called Yiga Choeling Monastery, sitting at about 8,000 feet. It follows the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism and there is a 15-foot statue of Maitreya Buddha inside.
I visited the Tibetan Refugee Centre where  fine arts and crafts from the Tibet folks who have moved to India to find work and home are showcased.
Other sites to see in Darjeeling, depending on your interest, might be the Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park, or the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute and Museum. Both are highlights. However, do not forget to stop and taste the tea. Anywhere you go in the world you can not think of Darjeeling without thinking of the tea, due to its immense popularity.

Where to Stay
For my Darjeeling tea experience, I visited Glenburn Tea Estate ( on the outskirts of Darjeeling. The Glenburn Estate is also home to a lovely boutique hotel that was all dolled up for the holiday season while I was there. There are 1,600 acres of private tea plantation on the property and all sorts of activities to enjoy. But I found that the most relaxing way to spend my time was   with tea and snacks, while lounging and daydreaming.
After my time at Glenburn, I headed back to the hotel where I stayed in Darjeeling, the Windamere Hotel ( The place gave me a magical feeling, as though I had crossed over into an earlier time. Coal fireplaces in the room warm your feet, white-gloved waiters serve all three meals, and the  hotel displayed holiday decorations from another time. Some guests I met informed me they had been coming to Windamere Hotel every year since forever to celebrate Christmas at this oldest colonial hotel in the Himalayas. The hotel is housed in buildings dating back to the 1880s, and you don’t want to miss the world famous DHR club on the premises.
Whether you visit during the holiday season, or take the trek up to Darjeeling at any other time of year, you won’t be disappointed. If it’s a spot of tea you are after, or an old-world place to visit, this is one place in India where you will find a magical experience like no other.

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