What to do... in Darjeeling

| December 28, 2016

At the foothills of the Himalayas, dwarfed by steep mountain ridges and surrounded by emerald-green tea plantations, lies one of the prettiest hill stations in India – Darjeeling.

tea pickers

I had never been to this part of the world before, but had often heard people talking about its relaxed ambience, tea gardens and beautiful landscapes filled with firs, pines and ferns. I had certain expectations and thankfully, I was not to be disappointed.

To reach Darjeeling, I flew to the small town of Bagdogra from Delhi and visited the cheerful hill stations of Kalimpong, Gangtok and Pelling. All are pretty towns with rich Tibetan cultures, and my days were spent visiting ancient monasteries and walking in the beautiful hills.

Zang Dhok Palri Monastery, Kalimpong

Zang Dhok Palri Monastery, Kalimpong

There is also an option to fly to Kolkata, and spend a few days there before heading further north. I would highly recommend this if you haven’t visited before. Kolkata was the capital of British India until 1911 and the city is a fascinating mixture of colonial history and everyday Indian culture. Many colonial buildings still remain, such as the Victoria Memorial, built between 1906 and 1921 as a memorial to Queen Victoria. You can then fly to Bagdogra and take a direct 3-hour road transfer to Darjeeling.

Victoria memorial, Kolkata

Victoria Memorial, Kolkata

After I had finished exploring Pelling, the journey to Darjeeling took about 4 hours. It was often slow and bumpy, but the forests, tea estates and mountain slopes made the journey an adventure. I was still happy to reach the glorious Glenburn Tea Estate, situated an hour away from Darjeeling.

The delights of Glenburn means it feels like a destination in itself. Opened by a Scottish tea company in 1859, Glenburn is still a working tea estate and sits on an enormous 647 hectares of land. This is full of birds and butterflies and perfect for scenic walks. In my mind though, the main advantage of staying at Glenburn is the magnificent view of Kanchenjunga, the world’s third tallest mountain.

glenburn hills

Rolling tea hills at the Glenburn Tea Estate

After staying the night in one of the eight cosy rooms, the next morning I was up before sunrise, so I could be rewarded with the white of majestic snow-capped Kanchenjunga set against the sprawling expanse of green of the estate. It’s hard to express just how beautiful the view is in real life.

View of Kanchenjunga

Views of the world’s third tallest mountain, Kanchenjunga, at the Glenburn Tea Estate.

After breakfast, I was led on a guided tour of the estate, home to rare flora and fauna including an array of beautiful species of birds and butterflies. The guide was extremely knowledgeable and pointed out resident Indian Peofowls, Barbets, Babblers and a White Throated Kingfisher.

Then I was off to visit Darjeeling itself. Darjeeling was India’s summer capital during the era of the Raj and the town today is strewn with colonial buildings, full of old character and charm. I spent the early afternoon strolling through the steep and bustling streets that wind through the town amidst bazaars, tea shops and beautiful buildings, before hopping on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, otherwise known as ‘the Toy train’, to Ghoom.

Toy train in Darjeeling

The Toy train in Darjeeling

This is one of the highlights of a trip to Darjeeling. You’ll pass not only beautiful landscapes and scenery, but also witness small towns and the street life of those who live in the region, gaining an insight into everyday living. The train journey takes an hour each way, with comfortable seats to relax in to. Upon reaching Ghoom, you can either explore the Ghoom Mountain Railway museum (which gives further insight into the Unesco recognised railway), or simply enjoy the views at the summit, this being the highest point of the railway, with a cup of local tea before heading back down.

I took a steam engine departure, of which there are three a day and I highly recommend timing your schedule to fit in with one of these. However, there are also diesel engine counterparts which run more frequently.

Darjeeling toy train

On the Toy train from Darjeeling town to Ghoom

The next morning I visited a popular site called Tiger Hill, for another chance to witness Kanchenjunga at sunrise. Although stubborn clouds denied us views of the mountains peaks, the view point was still worth the journey. As we stood close to the edge of the viewpoint, we could still see the beautiful valley below, the hill station of Kalimpong and the Rungeet River.

The rest of the day was spent back in Darjeeling visiting the Tibetan Refugee Centre, the Himalayan Zoological Park (with conservation programmes for snow leopards and red pandas), and the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute. The Refugee Centre was a humbling experience and very insightful in understanding the lives of the displaced people driven out of Tibet into Darjeeling. It is also a good place to witness handicraft techniques and purchase gifts, which help support the continuation of the centre.

tibetan refugee centre

Tibetan woman producing clothing at the Refugee Centre

The Mountain Institute was a fascinating experience, as it houses some of the kit and equipment that was used in early Everest expeditions.

It was time to drive back to Bagdogra for my flight home, as my three nights in Darjeeling had quickly come to an end. Although that is generally enough time to see the sights and enjoy the peaceful ambience, you could extend your stay here to factor in more time to relax, hike in the hills and explore the Buddhist monasteries.

I found Darjeeling captivating in every way; from the incredible panoramas to the insights into local culture.

If you would like to visit Darjeeling, Cox & Kings offers the Eastern Himalayan Trails, including visits to Kolkata and the hill stations. See more >

Otherwise, you can tailor-make your visit; just contact us on 020 7873 5000.

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