Tea reigns in Darjeeling, where life is marked by the four harvest seasons: first flush in spring, the second flush in June, monsoon season (yes, it’s a tea season) July-August, and the autumn flush from October into November.
British author George Orwell, born in a town west of Darjeeling, was a lifelong tea drinker. Among his observations about the brew, excerpted from a 1946 essay, “A Nice Cup of Tea”:
“Anyone who has used that comforting phrase ‘a nice cup of tea’ invariably means Indian tea … All true tea lovers not only like their tea strong, but like it a little stronger with each year that passes … Lastly, tea—unless one is drinking it in the Russian style—should be drunk without sugar … How can you call yourself a true tea-lover if you destroy the flavour of your tea by putting sugar in it?”
No matter how you take your cuppa, here’s a short and sweet guide to visiting this world-renowned tea mecca:
> Where to Stay:
The local icon is the Windamere Hotel, a cluster of country-cozy cottages from British raj times, with vintage furnishings and historical artifacts (guests have included the king of Sweden and Everest conqueror Sir Edmund Hillary). Its hillside location makes for wide views of the high Himalaya.
Visitors also can—and should—stay at one of the tea estates, most of which offer tours and visits to their tea-processing facilities. On the high end is the elegant yet casual hilltop Glenburn Tea Estate, where guest rooms are surrounded by hundreds of acres of tea plantings and trees.
Also notable: the Goomtee Tea Resort, with a four-room main house that makes you feel as if you’re staying at your own private tea estate; the bio-organic Tumsong Tea Retreat, which has four suites; and the Selim Hill Tea Estate & Retreat, known for its sweeping mountain vistas.
Visitors eager for an immersion in local life may enjoy a homestay with one of the working families at the Makaibari Tea Estates; a night for two people, including all meals—and tea—runs about $25.
> Where to Eat:
Food in Darjeeling is as influenced by nearby Nepal and Bhutan as by India.
And north Indian curries star alongside Thai and Chinese dishes at The Park restaurant, on Laden La Road. Many tea plantations also offer dining.
> Where to Shop for Tea:
Darjeeling supports a number of tea shops, some of which ship purchases. Nathmulls showcases more than 50 teas and is popular for its tastings.
Nearby Tea Emporium, in business since 1940, offers tastings and blogs about its tea offerings.
Golden Tips Tea stocks hundreds of loose-leaf teas for tasting and purchase (though its prices are on the higher end).
> Beyond Tea:
Chowk Bazaar is where locals go to buy produce and other goods.
For stores that specialize in crafts and clothing, head to Nehru Road and Chowrasta square. You’ll find traditional copper pots, Tibetan carpets, prayer wheels, and other crafts made by hand at the Tibetan Refugee Self Help Centre, which supports community services for refugees from nearby Tibet.
One of the best ways to take in the mountain scenery is on a “joy ride” aboard the historic Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, known as the Toy Train and part of the Mountain Railways of India World Heritage site. The Sukna Steam Special joy ride travels through tea estates.
> Travel Trivia:
- All teas derive from the same plant, Camellia sinensis, and are related to the ornamental camellia flower.
- Boiled tea water effectively cleans and polishes most hardwood floors, thanks to the tannins found in tea.
- British actress Vivien Leigh, who won an Oscar for her role as southern belle Scarlett O’Hara in the 1939 film Gone With the Wind, was born in Darjeeling.
This piece was reported by Andrew McCarthy to accompany a feature he wrote, entitled “Steeped in Darjeeling,” that appeared in the June/July 2014 issue of Traveler magazine.