WKND Travel: A slice of colonial charm to beat Covid-19 blues

Joydeep Sengupta /Joydeep Sen Gupta in the Darjeeling hills
joydeep@khaleejtimes.com Filed on July 8, 2021 | Last updated on July 12, 2021 at 09.40 am

India’s Chaiwala family’s boutique tourism initiative at Glenburn Tea Estate has emerged as a model for sustainable development for the struggling plantation sector in the Darjeeling hills

Let me take you far away, if you'd like to go on a quaint holiday to beat the raging Covid-19 blues.

You can do as they did in the halcyon days of the British Raj in colonial India.

Take a trip to the tea country in India’s Darjeeling hills, which is nestled in the breathtaking eastern Himalayas.

I did it on a whim and a fancy and took a flight from Delhi to Bagdogra, the nearest airport to the Darjeeling hills.

My destination was Glenburn Tea Estate, a heavenly plantation and forest retreat spread over 1,600 acres on a hillock above the banks of the Rangeet river, located at 910 metres above sea level and overlooking the mystic Kanchenjunga, the third-highest mountain peak in the world.

Ranjan Gurung, a fourth-generation Glenburn resident, received me at the airport.

Soon, we made our way to the plantation, as the hills up ahead in the distance beckoned.

The picturesque ride

The four-hour and 88-kilometre (km) ride from Bagdogra to the tea estate was a sneak peek of the picturesque landscape and diverse flora and fauna, as we left hill towns such as Kurseong, Tung, Sonada and Ghoom behind us.

Half-way, I stopped by to take in the majestic mountains glistening in the midday sun amid a drizzle for an impromptu picnic of home-made sandwiches, cakes and sampled a cup of the Glenburn Moonshine, the first flush tea that’s making waves in international markets this season.

I left the misty mountains behind at Ghoom -- the highest point in the Darjeeling hills at 2,225m -- and took the road to Glenburn.

On nature’s lap

The property manager, Rudolph John Lepcha, an amiable young man, who knows the lay of the land, welcomed me with a green khada, a scarf, which in Tibetan Buddhism symbolises purity, goodwill, auspiciousness, compassion and sincerity, at the entrance.

On nature's lap, it was time to unwind and go for a social media detoxification in this pristine corner of the world that has been mercifully untouched by the contagion.

However, all Covid-19-related precautionary measures were in place for guests.

Privacy is the hallmark of the tea experience.

There are eight tastefully done-up suites that exude colonial charm and grandeur and are in keeping with modern amenities such as air-conditioners.

The suites are evenly housed in the antiquated The Burra Bungalow and the more recent The Water Lily Bungalow.

The maximum capacity of the suites are 25 guests, including children.

The staff, who have a happy disposition, are proficient in English, as a majority of the guests are inbound travellers from the United Kingdom (UK), the United States of America (USA), Germany and Australia and a fair share from the UAE as well.

Over 50 staff are at your beck and call to pamper you.

There is also a dedicated “Pamper Team” that uses Darjeeling Green Tea Massage Oil to rejuvenate your aching bones.

Fresh mint and chamomile foot soaks can do wonders after a long day’s trek, including refreshing reflexology treatments.

There is a shop for local souvenirs, Indian fabrics and assorted knick-knacks, and, of course, Glenburn tea that will keep your memories afresh of a fascinating trip in the wild, wild countryside.

Glenburn, which was started by a Scottish company in 1859, has been run by the Prakashes -- known as India’s chaiwala (tea planters) family -- since the turn of the new millennium.

Tea experience

Tea experience, which is inspired by the vineyards of Europe and other parts of the world, is the brainchild of Husna-Tara Prakash.

She has had the best of both worlds, as she had lived in England and studied in Mussoorie, a north Indian hill station, during her formative years.

She is a science teacher by profession and holds a couple of degrees from Cambridge University.

She has been immersed in the world of tea boutique hospitality since her first trip to the plantation.

Tea has become the centre of her universe around which the sustainable development of the estate’s 3,000 residents, including around 800 workers, revolve around.

Husna-Tara’s chance encounter with Australian Bronwyn Latif, an interior designer, who has made India her home, in 2001 helped realise her cherished tea experience dream project.

The Burra Bungalow

The tea tourism journey started with the restoration of The Burra Bungalow, which was built in 1932 and home to generations of planters, in 2002.

It’s four suites are a happy blend of the colonial charm and an ode to a bygone era.

The Planters’ Suite overlooks Glenburn’s third division Simbong and across the Rangeet river lies the Kitam Bird Sanctuary.

The suite recreates the days of the East India Company, thanks to its regal, turn-of-the-century four-poster bed made of Spanish mahogany.

The Rose Suite is a paean to purity and eternal beauty of the flower.

The Kanchenjunga Suite, which has a distinctive blue and white decor, takes its name from the famous peak, which can be viewed on a clear day once you step out of the room.

A soft muslin trail of butterflies enhances the beauty of the canopied four-posted bed in the Simbong Butterfly Room.

The Water Lily Bungalow

In 2008, The Water Lily Bungalow, comprising four more rooms that included stunning views of the Darjeeling town and Kanchenjunga range, was constructed in keeping with the heritage property’s colonial charm.

The Camelia Suite encapsulates the two- leaves-and-a-bud motif.

The Singalila Suite opens to the majestic views of the Singalila range while Mount Kanchenjunga towers above it.

The Rangeet Suite gives a view of the snow-capped mountains or down to the plantation’s green fields that are nourished by the snow-fed water of the Rangeet river.

The Rung Dung Suite has a direct view of the Kanchenjunga mountain range.

Social media detox

There are several ways to log off from the outside world and be cocooned in the vibrant community spirit of Glenburn.

I relaxed while enjoying the breathtaking scenery and serenity.

And there’s always a hot cuppa of Glenburn tea and a page-turner book -- I was engrossed in Jeff Koehler’s Darjeeling - A History of the World’s Greatest Tea -- to keep you company.

But beyond the mesmerising tranquility, several activities can be lapped up for outdoor enthusiasts.

The Glenburn tea tour is a guided experience of the intricacies behind producing the morning cuppa.

The beautiful estate can be explored either on foot or by jeep. There are tailored hikes and trails, including a full-day trek along the rocky riverbed of the Rung Dung river.

Excursion to the Glenburn campsite is an exhilarating experience, where you can let your hair down for a picnic.

You can opt for an overnight stay at The Glenburn Lodge.

The stay at the Lodge is an immersive experience in wild surroundings by the Rangeet river and far from the madding crowd.

The biodiversity, home to birders’ delight such as from Blue Whistling Thrush to Hill Myna, is spread over 1,000 acres of forests and shares a similar ecosystem as that of the Senchal Wildlife Sanctuary in the vicinity.

You can enjoy a bonfire and a delicious feast in the heart of the forest on the banks of the Rangeet river, surrounded by kerosene lamps, amid an eerie experience.

During the day, you can walk across the river to Sikkim, play a game of croquet or beach cricket and have a refreshing dip in the river, or go angling for Rainbow Trout, Brown Trout, Golden Mahseer etc.

Angling is a catch-and-release programme as part of the conservation initiative to preserve the endangered Golden Mahseer that some locals hunt using illegal fishing methods.

Other options include a hike along the Rangeet river to Majitar village in neighbouring Sikkim. Drive or hike to Ramitay Daara viewpoint. An afternoon hike to Shikari Dura village on the estate gives you an up, close and personal feel of the locals’ lives and livelihood. Visit to Lamahatta Orchard and Cluny Sisters’ church and school.

You can go on day trips to adjoining Darjeeling and Kalimpong towns, which are about two hours and one and half hour's ride, respectively, from the plantation. Overnight trips to Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim, is the other option to experience the pristine and demonstrative Tibetan culture.

Glenburn gastronomy

The plantation’s well-stocked kitchen garden is a one-stop source for all ingredients for multiple cuisines in the farm-to-fork model such as from local Nepalese, Tibetan and traditional Indian dishes to South-East Asian, Continental and Mediterranean fares to tickle your palate.

No two meals are similar, as chefs tickle your palate.

I enjoyed my quiet breakfast under the dappled shade of a pomelo tree, which was laden with ripe fruits.

I savoured my lunch on the bright and sunny verandah of The Water Lily Bungalow.

However, the piece-de-resistance is the dinner, which is served table d'hôte in the candle-lit intimacy of The Dining Room with the hosts and guests.

You are likely to meet people from across the globe, which I did, for animated and stimulating conversations that have the potential to strike up life-long relationships.

Evenings on the estate

A day on the estate runs by nature's dawn-to-dusk routine.

As night falls, depending on the time of the year, it’s time to engage in some scintillating conversations at the dinner table, watch a 15-minute documentary film on the history of the estate or indulge in some leisure reading.

I chose to sit on the manicured lawns of The Burra Bungalow and went on a trip down memory lane, as the lights from far-off villages across the hill in Badamtam and Ging tea estates sparkled like fireflies under a sheltering sky.

Is it a willing suspension of disbelief?

I thought to myself amid the constant buzzing sounds of night crickets.

The sense of day, time and place are lost on nature’s lap because of its splendid isolation.

I chose to surrender to serendipity with gay abandon.

Sustainable community development

The art of giving is an integral part of the tea experience.

There is a dedicated education programme that supports 64 children and also aids the local primary government schools with infrastructure and additional teaching staff.

Beyond Glenburn is the essence of curated journeys that delve deep into the heart of the plantation’s local communities.

Stay with the Lepcha family – the indigenous inhabitants of the eastern Himalayas.

You can stay at a traditional Lepcha village, look directly at Mount Kanchenjunga – the mountain they worship.

The hikes to and from the Lepcha homestay meander past waterfalls, bamboo forests, and through quaint villages that introduce you to their hunter-gatherer lifestyle, farming methods, cuisine, weaving and basketry skills, heightened by music and folk tales.

An Annual Lepcha Archery Festival is being held in a bid to revive their ancient art of hunting and sport.

A digital library seeks to store their rich legacy and also helps local children learn e-skills, browse the internet and familiarise themselves with computers.

Solar energy and other sustainable practices are in practice to help with waste and water management and minimising our carbon footprints.

The essence of a village experience lies in its interpretation, coupled with memorable moments that come alive through access to village life, community relationships and storytelling.

Glenburn Orchard – Intern, Learn and Earn is a sustainable community model for integrated agro-animal husbandry, beekeeping, fishery, seed farm, and community centre with a revenue model for local farm-fresh products to retail markets that don’t reach the Glenburn’s farm-to- fork model.

There is also the Glenburn Tea Festival, which celebrates the plantation.

Glenburn Tea Estate & Boutique Hotel also won the Indian Responsible Tourism Award (IRTA) in 2020.

Back to the rat race

It was time to head back to the rat race. Much as one would love to stay back and soak in the sights and sounds of the idyllic charm, I had to pay heed to my calling and couldn’t stay far from the madding crowd.

Truth be told, the body was willing, the mind didn’t.

I headed back to Delhi, as Sujit Bishwakarma, a third-generation Glenburn resident, took to the wheels, leaving the majestic hills behind and into the muggy plains that are struggling to overcome the pandemic challenge.

Au revoir, as I promised to be here soon.

As we hit the road back to Bagdogra, the thoughtful Sujit had amped up John Denver’s cult classic Country Roads whose lyrics (Almost heaven, West Virginia Blue Ridge Mountains/Shenandoah River/Life is old there/older than the trees/Younger than the mountains, growin' like a breeze) can be supplanted in the local Nepali language and accompanied by hilly folk musical instruments.

Denver’s country classic and Glenburn’s everlasting charms are to live for another day.

For reservations log on to: https://www.glenburnteaestate.com/contact-us.php

How to get to the Glenburn Tea Estate

Emirates and Etihad Airways have daily direct flights from Dubai and Abu Dhabi, respectively, to Delhi. From Delhi, take a flight to Bagdogra Airport, and another 88- km ride to the Glenburn Tea Estate.

A taxi ride will take around four hours and the tea estate will arrange one.

Joydeep Sengupta