Tea, a Train and an Epic Sunrise at a Summer Retreat of the Raj

Ever since I was a little girl I’d dreamed of going to Darjeeling. My imagination was captivated by this town nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas in the Indian state of West Bengal. Surrounded by lush, terraced tea gardens that extend across rolling hills, with the majestic snow-capped mountains behind them, Darjeeling is one of India’s most stunning hill stations, known as the Queen of the Mountains.

Originally set up in the 1800s as a summer retreat for British officials, it was leased to them by the Kingdom of Sikkim, and subsequently annexed to the British Raj in India. This history is still evident in its architecture and churches.

Darjeeling sits high above some of its neighbors at an altitude of 6,710 feet. I had visions of myself sipping tea amid the mountains, surrounded by natural beauty and tranquillity.

I visited Darjeeling for the first time in 2014 and it rained the whole time. For years I had longed to return and finally, in the spring of 2023, I made the trip again, this time with my father and sister-in-law in tow, spending four days. The plan was to explore Darjeeling itself, then visit Tiger Hill, famous for its sunrise; take in the tea gardens and the Batasia Loop, where the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway makes its famous 360-degree turn; and then to ride the train on its vertiginous climb through the mountains.

The Chowrasta — or mall — is the heart of the old town on the Nehru Road. Credit…Poras Chaudhary for The New York Times

Starting at the crossroads

People all over the world associate Darjeeling most closely with tea — but little do they know that the fame of Darjeeling’s tea has come at a price, namely massive deforestation as the tea plantations have expanded.

Today, the population is largely immigrant and migrant workers keep the town’s tea trade flourishing. I learned a great deal about the history and culture of the tea industry from some of the town’s tea estate managers and owners. They explained how quickly the industry had grown and that their security teams kept a close watch over the laborers to keep production levels as intensive as possible. While we take great pleasure in enjoying our tea, it is always worth remembering how such enjoyment can sometimes come at the expense of other people.

Our first stop was the Chowrasta — or mall — the heart of the old town on the Nehru Road. It’s a lively, bustling place: home to a promenade where tourists and locals alike come to shop, eat or simply sit and take in the views. For me it was a great chance to people-watch, sitting with a cup of tea and listening to young people singing Bollywood songs, families bargaining with the vendors and conversations between passers-by.

While taking in the beautiful chaos around me, and surrounded by the heady smell of pine trees, I spotted a few women vendors selling bhuta (corn on the cob). I walked over to one to order some and as it cooked, I asked her about the four roads leading off from Chowrasta. She explained that the name Chowrasta means “intersection”: Each of the four roads that lead out of the mall takes you in a different direction.

We were staying at the Mayfair Hill Resort Darjeeling. The one-time summer retreat of the Maharajah of Nazargunj offered panoramic views of the surrounding tea gardens and snow-capped peaks. Mayfair Darjeeling is known for its colonial charm and old-world elegance. It’s bright yellow buildings with their red roofs are perched on a hilltop overlooking the former summer house of the British governor during the Raj era.

The mail station

The next day we traveled to the village of Chimney, or Chimeni, home to the British Army during the First World War. During the colonial period, they built the 24-foot-tall chimney for which the village was named. Once the heart of a building called the Dak Bungalow, the chimney is the only part of the structure that remains in the forest beside the beautiful village in the Himalayas.

“Dak” translates as “mail”: These bungalows provided accommodations for the English mail carriers during the colonial period, as well as offering lodging for the British Empire’s government officials whose role was to maintain the outposts of the East India Company. Inside the bungalow you’d find a khansama (cook) who would feed these officials during their stays — giving their name to the famous Anglo-Indian curry known as the dak bangla, or mail bungalow curry, which was traditionally lighter on spices to please the English palate.

At Dak Bungalow I paid my entrance fee and stared up at the red brick chimney, which now stands almost in despair, offering a glimpse into the area’s history.

Suddenly the sunlight started to give way to darkness, and it was time to head back to our hotel in Darjeeling. We wanted to get a good night’s sleep before an early start to see the Tiger Hill sunrise.

Seeing the sun’s first rays breaking over the snow-capped peaks of the mighty Kanchenjunga Mountain and Mount Everest from Tiget Hill has become a ritual among tourists.Credit…Poras Chaudhary for The New York Times

Dawn on Tiger Hill

Seeing the sun’s first rays breaking over the snow-capped peaks of the mighty Kanchenjunga Mountain and Mount Everest has become a ritual among tourists. Because of the location of the sun, the best time to see this incredible sight is from mid-October to December or March to April, and you’ll want to leave early: Tiger Hill was about an hour and a half’s drive from our hotel and we made sure to arrive by 4 a.m. You’d be surprised by how many people were there at that hour.

I’ve seen some incredible sunrises over the years, but this was something else: It was an experience that stole my heart. As the very first rays of golden sunshine rose across the snowy mountain tops we were mesmerized. We sipped the sweetest coffee I’ve ever tasted, sold in flasks by vendors capitalizing on the crowds — the perfect way to warm up on a cold, windy morning. The entire experience at Tiger Hill lasts for about 30 to 45 minutes. It begins before dawn, as visitors gather to secure the best place to view the sun.

When I reached the viewing point, everything was enveloped in darkness. Suddenly the sky transitioned to deep indigo, creating an aura of anticipation. Then the eastern horizon started to illuminate with a soft, pale orange or pinkish hue. The sky took on a delicate, pastel color, with the sun peeking out. As the sun began to rise above the horizon, it was a moment of sheer awe and wonder as its rays illuminated the landscape. For me the entire spectrum of colors during the Tiger Hill sunrise created a magical and surreal experience, with the play of light and shadow against the Himalayan peaks.

The one big disappointment — both on Tiger Hill and elsewhere in Darjeeling — was the mess. Tourists leave their litter everywhere, putting these landscapes at risk: something we need to be more mindful of to preserve these sites for the generations to come.

Back in Darjeeling, after a simple breakfast I took a leisurely stroll around some of the town’s church buildings to admire the architecture while the others were freshening up. Walking is by far the best way to explore the town and see as much of its colonial architecture as possible. Many of the town’s colonial churches are still functional and are open for services and prayers, including the St. Jude Catholic Church, built in 1892. Erected to cater to the local Catholic community and British military, it was left vacant for several years after the English left but was reopened decades later by Darjeeling’s Catholic community. With its breathtaking views of the surrounding hills and landscape, its pointed arches, ornate carvings, stained glass windows and the intricate details on its facade, the church is a historical and architectural gem.

The narrow-gauge Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, popularly known as the Toy Train, has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1999. Credit…Poras Chaudhary for The New York Times

Riding the toy train

Rather than travel with my father and sister-in-law by car to Kurseong to visit some of the area’s tea estates, a distance of about 18 miles, I instead chose to travel by train. I wanted the time to marvel at the landscape around me — and I knew that the rattle of the train along the track would also invoke happy memories of the holidays I used to take with my family when I was little.

The narrow-gauge Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, popularly known as the Toy Train, has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1999. On a clear day, it was easy to see why. The train line runs on high, elevated tracks and climbs steeply through the mountains with more than 850 loops and curves. It gave me a glimpse of life around Darjeeling as it passed through the hill towns and villages, with shops and vendors selling things along the roads.

Riding the train I was like a child with a new toy. Along the way we stopped to take on water and I managed to hop on and off when the train was at slow speed. I was nervous as it passed through the steep curves but I was marveling at the same time. The most iconic section is the Batasia Loop, situated between Darjeeling and Ghum, where the train makes a 360-degree turn.

The train traveled through the Mahananda wildlife sanctuary, staggering along the sharp curves and beautiful hillside loops, before coming to a halt at the old Kurseong station where I met my family to visit some of the area’s tea estates.

The Selim Hill Tea Garden borders the town of Kurseong and dates to 1870.Credit…Poras Chaudhary for The New York Times

Sampling tea culture

While there are plenty of tea estates in Darjeeling, I wanted to try something different. We stopped and looked at the Makaibari estate, where tea has been cultivated since the 1850s. It is one of the first tea estates in India to win a fair trade certificate and raises its tea organically. I served their tea when I had a restaurant, getting it from the Bristol Tea Company, a supplier specializing in organic and fair trade teas. A small hotel on the property, the Makaibari Bungalow, is the kind of place where you could sit and write novels, sipping the most delicious tea while enjoying its slow pace and tranquil luxury.

We also spent time at the Selim Hill Tea Garden, which borders the town of Kurseong and dates to 1870. Sitting at 4,000 feet above sea level, the estate is named after the tea plantation’s founder, called Selim Sahab by the locals. The current manager, Shahab Mallick, explained to me that the estate is 100 percent organic and that it has moved away from the commercial model of other tea plantations in the area. Instead, they’ve created the Selim Hill Collective, with an inclusive, sustainable approach to tea growing that’s designed to preserve biodiversity and treat workers fairly.

The estate’s 240 permanent staff receive accommodation, social security and medical care and we learned about the whole tea-production process from start to finish: plucking, weathering, rolling, drying, sorting and packing. Mr. Mallick showed me around the estate’s cottage, now inhabited by the owners. I was excited to learn that Rabindranath Tagore, the 1913 Nobel Prize Laureate for Literature, used to stay there.

Those who want to visit Darjeeling to be immersed in its tea culture can do so even more easily by staying overnight at a luxurious tea estate like the Taj Chia Kutir Resort and Spa, the Glenburn Tea Estate, the Ging Tea House or the Singtom Tea Estate & Resort. .

As we drove along the hillside roads back to Darjeeling, we stopped at Timboor on the Trail, a restaurant known for its Nepalese food, that was surrounded by a terraced garden filled with a wide variety of beautiful flowers including azaleas and petunias. I wanted to experience a traditional Nepalese thali, a combination of different dishes, including dal, sabzi (vegetables), meat or fish, salad, pickle, chutney, raita (yogurt), rice and chapati bread. I was hoping to recapture the memories of meals shared with the Nepalese friends I grew up with in West Bengal. A sizable vegetable patch at the back of the restaurant provided the basis for many of the dishes on their menu, including creamy Dal Makhani made with black lentils and an indulgent Butter Chicken.

The Nepalese thali was an explosion of exciting flavors. An earthy mushroom sabzi, an organic black dal and lightly spiced gobi matar sabji — cauliflower and peas — sat alongside the Nepalese fried potatoes simply known as aloo fry.

In addition, we enjoyed various pickles: gundruk ko achaar (fermented greens), mooli ko achar (pickled radish with chili) and filinge achar — a powdered pickle made with nigella seeds. In addition, the thali included a creamy kheer (rice pudding), the perfect way to finish the meal.

Follow New York Times Travel on Instagram and sign up for our weekly Travel Dispatch newsletter to get expert tips on traveling smarter and inspiration for your next vacation. Dreaming up a future getaway or just armchair traveling? Check out our 52 Places to Go in 2023.

Related Articles

Back to top button