Part Victorian holiday resort, part major tea-growing centreDarjeeling is a popular Indian hill station and West Bengal’s premier destination. It lies on a ridge 2200 meters up in the Himalayas, almost 600km north of Kolkata. A popular summer resort for the erstwhile British rulers, Darjeeling once had oodles of colonial charm which nowadays is barely discernible. The town, however, remains ever popular with holiday-makers from the plains with awesome views of the mighty Kanchendzonga and other snow-capped peaks as its biggest draw. Today, this hill station is a victim of its own popularity with the ever-expanding population (and tourists) leading to acute shortages of water and electricity, traffic and urban chaos. Still, Darjeeling evokes a lot of emotions especially, from the ones who studied there and the Bengalis and is believed to be felt, not seen.
How to Reach Darjeeling
The nearest train station is New Jalpaiguri (NJP) which is accessible by trains from all over India. Bagdogra Airport (IXB) caters to flights from all over India. You can also reach Darjeeling by road from Guwahati, Gangtok, etc. or take one long-distance bus from Kolkata for Siliguri (and then proceed to Darjeeling). Comfort level of the buses depends on the price of the ticket. This is an overnight journey.
Tata Sumo serves as shared jeeps and is the cheapest way to reach Darjeeling from Siliguri/NJP. Private jeeps are also available at the airport and the train station. The private transfer fee is fixed at around 3000 INR and it takes approx. 4 hours to reach Darjeeling. Shared jeep transfer costs about 200 INR per person and you can book more than 1 seat to be more comfortable.
Best Time to Visit
October-December for winter chills, April-June for lovely spring-summer
Accommodations in Darjeeling
In Darjeeling, it makes sense to splurge and stay at one of the luxury hotels especially if you want to relax in the fresh mountain air. Opt for Elgin-Darjeeling, Mayfair Hotel or Windamere Hotel. These restored summer properties of erstwhile royalty come with luxury and stories. Alternatively, to escape the grungy scene of Darjeeling, choose homestays outside the town or in Ghoom.
Getting Around in Darjeeling
Walking is the best way to get around Darjeeling. Trust me, this destination is a real fat buster, especially if you are carrying a child or a toddler up and down the hilly roads. The zoo or the outlying attractions can be reached by taxi. Ghoom and Tiger Hill (for sunrise) are accessible by shared jeep or taxi.
Dining Out in Darjeeling
Most visitors swear by the English breakfast served with awesome views at Keventers. Personally, I found it to be another Darjeeling nostalgia “thing to do” rather than being an awesome place to eat. Smaller eateries around the Mall or at the Chowrasta served better local fare like thukpas, momos, thalis (meal platters which come with rice, vegetables, dal, chicken/fish, etc.) Glenary’s Bakery had better wifi connectivity than most places in Darjeeling and their sandwiches were quite okay.
What to Buy in Darjeeling
- Darjeeling Tea – Darjeeling tea is world famous for its subtle aroma and refined taste. There are many famous Darjeeling tea gardens which sell tea in their own outlets. You can buy Darjeeling tea at the estates, small boutiques which offer some amazing options of the finest blends or at Nathmulls. There are more than 50 varieties of tea and the price varies on quality.
- Local and Tibetan Artifacts – There are many shops at the flea markets that sell thangkas (Tibetan scroll painting), traditional masks, laughing Buddha, a prayer wheel and other local artifacts. Bargain well and for more authentic souvenirs head to Dorjee Himalayan Artifacts, that is a treasure trove of Tibetan and oriental artifacts.
- Woolen Clothes – Darjeeling can be wet and cold. That is why this hill town specializes in winter wear and you can stock up some woolen clothing at the Mahakal or Dragon Market. Check out the jackets, scarves, hats, and shawls.
Things to do in Darjeeling
- Visit a Tea Plantation – There are approximately 80 tea plantations functioning in and around Darjeeling. The tea is known for being, floral and light colored and the tea gardens are green-swathed rolling Instagram delights. Here’s a list of plantations you can visit.
- Mahakal Temple – I liked this place because of its quiet, tranquil setting. Hundreds of draped Buddhist prayer flags were an added attraction and it was a great distraction from the Chowrasta Square. Head over to the Observatory and Mahakal Temple for a quiet green walk. You can even go there by a pony.
- Tea Tasting – Check out the Golden Tips store located between the Nehru Road and Chowrasta. It is as cute as it gets and sells different varieties of tea and teaware. There is a tea bar which has an extensive menu of the finest teas of the region. Do indulge in an afternoon of tea tasting.
- Visit the Happy Valley Tea Estate – This is one of the highest tea farms in Darjeeling. Established in 1854 by an English planter, Happy Valley Tea Estate is an excellent place to get introduced to the production of Darjeeling tea. Their tea is exported and even auctioned. Guided tours are available. Working Hours are Tuesday to Saturday from 8 AM to 4 PM. It takes 45 minutes to reach there by car.
- Himalayan Zoo – Formally known as Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park, this zoological park houses many native Himalayan animals. The highlights included a white snow leopard and the famous red pandas.
- Lloyd Botanical Garden – This is one of the hidden gems of Darjeeling. A cascade of half-hidden gardens, Lloyd Botanical Gardens contain an impressive collection of Himalayan plants, most famously orchids and rhododendrons. Track the signs down Loch Nagar near the Motor Stand and walk down to the small entrance gate.
- Darjeeling Ropeway – This is perfect (weather gods provided) for those seeking panoramic views of rolling tea fields and tea pickers. Rangeet Valley Ropeway is a must. Located around 3km from Chowk Bazaar in Singmar, Darjeeling Ropeway or the Rangeet Valley Ropeway offers a 15 minutes ride over the Darjeeling ridge. It stops at the Tuvkar village where you can keep walking to its tea estate and visit its factory. Working Hours are 10 AM to 4 PM (winter/monsoon); 10 AM – 2 PM (summer and autumn). Costs 75 INR and you can see the trail marking Rangeet Valley Ropeway near the Zoo. Take a taxi to reach there or walk up for 45 minutes.
- Ghoom Monastery – Ghoom Monastery was right next to my homestay in Ghoom. Built in 1875 by a lama called Sherab Gyatso, is the largest in Ghoom and holds the whopping 15 feet statue of the Maitreya Buddha. Also known as the Yiga Choeling Monastery, Ghoom Monastery preserves some rare, handwritten Buddhist manuscripts.
- Darjeeling Himalayan Railway – The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway or the toy train guarantees the classic joy ride. It is a bit touristy but a fun way t experience one of the world’s last steam-powered train rides. Darjeeling Himalayan Railway has been in the Unesco World Heritage since 1999 and the two-hour return ‘joy rides’ just from Darjeeling to Ghum can be slow, yet satisfying. Though many people find on the spot tickets, at the time of my visit the toy train was sold out. So book ahead and check out the official site for more information.
Foreigners Registration Office in Darjeeling
Foreign travelers going onward into Sikkim will need an Inner Line Permit. The permit is free and easy to get. Just take your passport and visa to the Foreigners Registration Office on Chowk Bazaar to get it issued. You may need to get it further authorized at another governmental building in Darjeeling. Read my previous post for more information on Sikkim permits.
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE