Situated in North Bengal, Darjeeling has always been a popular tourist spot for the people of Calcutta. The Queen of Hills was once the favourite getaway for the British to escape the hot and humid summers of the plains and is replete with colonial heritage today. It is also a significant place for Buddhists and houses some of the most important Buddhist monasteries of the region.
Darjeeling is more than a mere holiday destination for most Bengalis, it is almost like an emotion. As a child, I remember the excitement of the overnight train journey to Siliguri and then taking a taxi up to the lush green hills of Darjeeling. This summer when my friends decided to revisit my favourite childhood destination, I readily agreed to refresh the old memories.
Arriving at Bagdogra
Ideally, I would have loved to take the train to either New Jalpaiguri or Siliguri, but as time was a constraint, we decided to take flights to and from the Bagdogra Airport. This definitely minimizes the journey time and gives you much more time to explore the hill station. Darjeeling is about two and a half to three hours drive away from Bagdogra Airport and there are plenty of hired taxis available. Most hotels also provide pick up and drop facilities from the airport or railway station and it is a good idea to avail of this service if you are visiting for the first time.
Journey up the hills
The drive from the airport to our hotel in Darjeeling was exactly what we needed to soothe our heat frayed nerves. As the plains gave way to the hills the clean fresh air cleansed away all our tiredness from the journey. Our hotel was located in the most popular part of the city, MG Road which is the hub of all activities in Darjeeling.
The hotels here get sold out pretty fast as they are conveniently located near Mall Road, so it is a good idea to book well in advance. Hotels of all price points are available here and make sure to do some research and bargain well if you are travelling in peak season. Look for deals and packages offered by hotels and homestays.
If you are on a budget, you can opt for hotels a little away from the nerve centre. But remember you might have to climb up and down steep slopes to reach your hotel. So, be prepared for some exercise!
Stretching our legs
The flight and the car journey to Darjeeling can be quite hectic and draining and the best way to get over the fatigue is to explore the famous Mall Road. Every hill station in India is sure to have a Mall Road, and Darjeeling is no exception. This enchantingly charming area of the city is full of quaint cafes and shops selling a variety of things from shawls to umbrellas and other souvenirs.
The best way to explore the Mall Road area is on foot as there are no vehicles allowed here. It is usually very crowded at all times of the day so be prepared to be engulfed by a throng of tourists. The Mall Road is a great place to stretch your legs and catch a glimpse of the mighty Kanchenjunga peak from one of the many viewpoints. You can also sample the delicious momos from the local stalls or bargain for some colourful knick-knacks for friends and family back home.
There are often musical performances and local dance performances organized in the evenings at the stage on Mall Road which you can check out while sipping on a piping hot cup of tea. Don’t forget to carry your umbrellas and woollen caps or mufflers as it can get pretty chilly in the evenings.
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Sunrise at Tiger Hill
Early next morning at around 4 am, we got ready to leave for Tiger Hill to try and catch a glimpse of the rising sun lighting up the mountain peaks in all shades of pink and orange. We had our fingers crossed and hoping for clear skies and a good spot to stand in. This is one of the must-do activities when in Darjeeling and you should expect large crowds on any given day.
When we woke up it was still dark outside and to our dismay, there was a slight drizzle of rain as well. This did not bode well for us so far. However, without losing hope we headed off in our taxi to the Tiger Hill viewpoint. There was a fine mist all around us and the climb up from the parking lot to the viewing arena was quite a steep trek. So, make sure you wear proper footwear.
As we headed up to the viewing gallery the weather Gods showed us mercy and the drizzle stopped and the mist slowly started to clear. There was an expectant hush as the sunrise time grew near and soon, we could see the light reflected in the snow-covered peaks of the mighty Himalayas. The spectacular play of colour and light is enthralling but be careful of the crowds who can get very excitable.
Food lover’s paradise
After a successful sunrise watching expedition, we headed back to Darjeeling to get ourselves the famous Keventer’s breakfast. If you are a non-vegetarian, this is definitely going to be a meal to remember!
We were famished from the trek up and down Tiger Hill and so we ordered the full English breakfast which is fit for a king. For vegetarians, there is a wide variety of sandwiches and burgers as well. Don’t forget to order a hot cup of Darjeeling tea to go with your breakfast.
After a hearty breakfast, we headed off to the Zoological Gardens and the Mountaineering Institute. The walk to the Zoo will definitely help digest the breakfast and work up an appetite for lunch. The Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park is unlike the other zoos in the way that the animals are kept in as close to their natural habitat as possible instead of cages.
The main attraction of the zoo is definitely the adorable Red Pandas. These cuddly creatures can be seen lounging in the trees in their enclosures. Apart from the Red Pandas, there are also Indian Sloth Bears, tigers, wolves, snow leopards and different species of birds and reptiles.
Next, we headed to the Mountaineering Institute which has a museum dedicated to all things trekking and mountaineering. The ticket can be bought along with the zoo entry tickets, but if you want to skip it, then mention it to the clerk at the ticket booth.
Lazy Lunch at Glenary’s
Darjeeling is full of quaint colonial-style cafes and restaurants and one of my favourites since childhood is Glenary’s. They have some of the best dishes and definitely the best pastries and bread that you can ask for. Make sure to pick up some of their custom chocolates, cookies and candies for those of you who have a sweet tooth.
After the lunch, we walked around the Mall Road some more and explored the Tibetan Refugee market for bargains on backpacks, sweaters, shawls and other things. There are plenty of souvenirs that you can pick up from here, but make sure you bargain well.
It was time to retire for the night as we had another early morning start the next day. We were going to take the iconic Darjeeling Himalayan Toy Train ride!
Toy Train to Ghoom and Back
One of the must-do experiences in Darjeeling is to take a ride on the famous Darjeeling Himalayan Railway better known as the Toy Train. This UNESCO World Heritage train chugs along with the famous sights of Darjeeling on its way to Ghoom and back. There are different timings available for the train and you can book as per your convenience or availability.
The Toy Train is a very popular attraction and the seats are usually sold out almost immediately on opening. Make sure to plan well in advance if you want to include this in your itinerary. It is also a good idea to check in advance for changes in train timings and closure dates due to weather, maintenance and seasonal demands.
We boarded the train from the Darjeeling station at around 9 am and soon it chugged merrily across the city on its way to Ghoom. We stopped at the Batasia Loop for about ten minutes. This is a great place to view the surrounding mountains and take pictures of the train. Soon we were at Ghoom where we visited the Darjeeling Himalayan Railways museum which records the history of the DHR and its evolution.
Soon we were on our way back to Darjeeling where we were met by our taxi driver who was waiting to take us to the airport for our flight back to Kolkata. Even though our trip was a short one, we managed to perfectly capture all the important aspects of Darjeeling into it.
Bidding Adieu to Darjeeling
As we made our way down the hills towards the airport, we were already planning our next trip to the Queen of the Hills. Probably we would avoid the peak summers next time and try to evade the flock of vacationing families or maybe we would venture onto the smaller lesser-known destinations that are coming up nearby Darjeeling. Whatever it was, we were sure that the hills would be calling us back soon!