Darjeeling is West Bengal’s favourite hill station. The region is also known as ‘Queen of Hill stations’. An up-hill climb by foot to get anywhere in Darjeeling will have you gasping for air, as the small little town of Darjeeling is at an elevation of 6,700 feet. The hill station has several viewpoints overlooking the stunning Kanchenjunga mountain ranges to its north.
Darjeeling is known to be an excellent hill station mainly for recuperation. When the British occupied Darjeeling, it’s said that they believed the hilly terrain and even the air had healing properties. They especially sent injured soldiers here to recuperate.
This tiny hill station was once home for Britishers looking to get away from the summer heat in the city of Kolkata. As Kolkata was previously the capital of India, Britishers found Darjeeling to be at a perfect distance for a summer holiday. The city of Darjeeling most certainly carries traces of the colonial victorian style summer residences. But today, you will find the old and new versions of Darjeeling harmoniously co-existing.
The same train that carried Britishers into Darjeeling for a summer vacation is now used by tourists to get a nice view of the city’s plains. It’s famously known as the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, and it is one of the many reasons people visit the hill station. The reason behind its admiration is that it’s a steam locomotive, built in 1879 by the British, which manages to be in service even today.
If you’re going to be visiting Darjeeling, you have to understand why tea and Darjeeling are linked together. Tea estates began to develop in this region by the end of the nineteenth century, after it was successfully cultivated in the Lloyd Botanical Gardens. Till today, tea cultivation is an essential part of the identity of the region of Darjeeling.
History and Culture of Darjeeling
Before the British era, Darjeeling had a very scanty population of aboriginal inhabitants who were the Lepchas and Bhutias of Sikkim. The hilly area around Darjeeling was controlled by the Kingdom of Sikkim. Once the British took over, Darjeeling started to gain the title of a social recreational resort for British officers and their families.
The demand for tea by Victorian England was constantly increasing. So England had to find a way to source their own tea instead of being dependent on China. That’s when Dr. Campbell took the initiative. He was the first to experiment with the idea of growing tea in Darjeeling, in 1841. From here, the course of Darjeeling changed and it became the ideal place to cultivate tea. Tea cultivation and gardens have always been part of the visuals of this town. You can take the Darjeeling ropeway to get a bird’s-eye view of the hilly terrain, valleys and of course, neatly lined tea plantations.
If you sit at a tea shop, you will have so many tea flavours to choose from, as your menu card can have upto 6 pages filled with names of different flavors of tea. Everyone in Darjeeling wants to wake up to a cup of organic Darjeeling tea. According to the Darjeeling Planters Association, “Darjeeling Tea is the World’s most expensive and exotically flavoured tea. They assert that without Darjeeling, Tea would be like Wine, without the prestige of Champagne.
You will also find many institutions and convents in Darjeeling built by the British, such as Loreto Convent in 1847, St. Paul’s School in 1864 and St. Joseph’s School in 1888. You can still visit a British style private school if you’re curious about the architecture. These were built as administrators. Moreover, Christian missionaries wished to modernize the natives of Darjeeling, who they referred to as hill-servants.
These so-called hill-servants took care of the huge British houses in the hills and protected the flower gardens. They understood how the British loved Victorian furniture to decorate their houses. They were responsible for giving the Memsahib (a white upper class women) morning tea, keeping her parasol and boots ready. If you decide to stay in a heritage hotel in Darjeeling, you would surely be taken back to the decor of the bygone era. The rooms and furniture are still found to be kept exactly how they were kept in the previous era.
Today, Darjeeling has a colonial charm to it and is developing its own culture. The majority of the population is part Sikkimese, Tibetan and Nepalese, as Darjeeling shares its borders with these states. It still offers travellers a peaceful serene landscape. The lake of Senchal, rolling hills, well trimmed parks and tea estates are the perfect places to rejuvenate. And of course, a stop for tea is a must. Other than tea, you must dig into chicken momos, pork phing, chicken thenthuk, beef wai wai. Spicy comfort soups are easily found in Darjeeling as the weather calls for hot and spicy cuisine. It’s also easy to spot bakeries in Darjeeling that serve scones, pies, tarts, muffins and cheesecake. Hearing what gets served in bakeries definitely gets you confused if you’re reading out a menu card in Britain. But that’s Darjeeling for you! A melting pot of different cuisines.
How to get to Darjeeling
By Air – Bagdogra is the nearest airport to reach Darjeeling. The Bagdogra airport is just 50 minutes by air from Kolkata airport, so ideally, the city of Kolkata is a good start point. Once you land, Darjeeling is 93 Kms away, so you will need to hire a taxi to get there. The road journey is approximately 2.5 hours and offers breathtaking views as your car hikes up from near sea-level to an altitude.
By Rail – If you’re especially interested in the railways, it’s best to take an overnight train journey from the city of Kolkata to NJP (New Jalpaiguri Railway Station). NJP is 2.5 hours away from the hill station Darjeeling. Once you’ve reached NJP, you can stay the night somewhere near the station and take the toy train (Darjeeling Himalayan Railway) the next day to get to Darjeeling. This route can be time consuming as it takes nearly 7 hours by this toy train. But those who would love to get to Darjeeling only by the wheels of a train, should surely try this out.
If you’re extremely tired of waiting for the toy train and don’t wish to lodge at NJP, we’d suggest hiring a taxi and head straight to Darjeeling. The taxi trip is just 2.5 hours and there are taxis readily available at NJP railway station.
By road – Darjeeling has good road connectivity with cities like Gangtok (96 km), Kalimpong (50 km) and Siliguri (61 km). So, a road journey to Darjeeling can be clubbed only if you’ll be exploring these cities too, as these places are in close proximity to Darjeeling, making this doable. If you’re in for it, you could take a 19 hour road trip from Kolkata to Darjeeling. However, such a long drive would feel strenuous for some. For the adventurous kind though, this should be exciting for sure.
Best Time To Travel To Darjeeling
Ideally, you want to visit Darjeeling when the sun shines bright in the day and the nights are cool. Darjeeling never really gets extremely hot, but just warms up during summers. That’s why April to June are the months when it’s just the perfect time to visit. All the tea estates and shrubs shine bright and you can get some beautiful pictures of the landscapes.
When it rains in Darjeeling, your views are disturbed with the fog and mist. The weather is extremely pleasant and lush, but it could also feel like gloomy weather for some. If you’re looking to experience the toy train, monsoon would not be a good time to visit as it brings the service to a halt. It rains in Darjeeling from July to September and as is the case with most places, the hotels and resorts are chapter during this time. If you love the monsoon or the hills, Darjeeling is definitely pretty amazing during the season.
During the winters (October to March), the average temperature in Darjeeling ranges from 7 to 5 degree celsius. Woolen clothes and heaters will come to your rescue during these months. The best part about the winters in Darjeeling are the festivals. There’s the Teesta Tea festival, the Darjeeling 10 day carnival and Orange festival.
Getting around Darjeeling
Darjeeling is a small town, so you can actually cover quite a bit by walking. But for longer trips, you can rely on renting a taxi. You can hire one from a taxi stand near the entrance of the Mall. The Mall is not a real mall but just the name of the meeting square in Darjeeling. There are pre-fixed points which tourists always visit, so your taxi driver or tour agent would try to sell you a tour package covering all these main attractions. This way, you save on the price as they offer a better deal. If you’re not comfortable with this, there is a fixed rate for taxis to take you from point A to B. An economical way for any journey in Darjeeling is sharing the ride with other tourists.
Don’t always stick to taking transport though. Try finding your way back by walking around. It’s the best way to get a slice of the local life in Darjeeling. You never know, maybe a local might end up inviting you for a cup of tea!
Breaking stereotypes about Darjeeling There’s nothing beyond those tea plantations. Other than visiting Darjeeling for a cup of the finest tea, you can also go trekking, exhaust yourself by trying mountain biking or visit a wildlife sanctuary. Darjeeling is also home to some of the most indigenous Himalayan plantations. These are just a handful of things that make it so special.
Go Check Out
Tiger Hill Sunrise Observatory
Start your day as early as possible to reach this point, as it attracts the most number of tourists. Set an alarm if you must. Everyone visits this place and they all patiently wait to catch the best view of Mount Kanchenjunga. It’s said that the tip of Mt. Everest can also be seen at a distance from this point when the sky is clear.
Happy Valley Tea Estate
Visiting a tea estate helps get an understanding of how tea is processed step by step. You’ve probably never pondered on how your tea powder reaches you, but here, you will be guided on the entire process. Being surrounded by thousands of acres of tea plants, all neatly trimmed, and the unending view of the valley – it’s just a pure delight!
Here, you can catch a glimpse of some of the most beautiful views of the landscape. You would not just get a view of the mountain ranges but the hilltop as well. Another reason why this place is exciting is the joy of seeing the toy train take a round of the entire garden. The garden takes the shape of a loop, but taking a turn in this garden isn’t that simple. It may seem like child’s play, but the toy train actually needs to make a 140 feet descent to complete the loop. This leaves people feeling amused everytime the train completes the loop.