The Eastern Himalayas rise in a parade of towering peaks from the city of Suliguri, the last stop on India’s steamy Bengal plains before you ascend to the cooler climes of Darjeeling.
In 1835 the British established a hill station in the Darjeeling region, 2,128 metres above sea level, so heat-wilted Europeans could escape Calcutta’s sweltering summers. But getting there wasn’t easy; it took an army of men hacking through virgin forests four years to build a road, completed in 1842.
It's a 45-minute flight from Calcutta (Kolkata) to Bagdogra Airport near Siliguri, where I hire a local 4WD taxi (A$37 one-way) for the 67-kilometre, three-hour drive to the town of Darjeeling, capital of Darjeeling province. The narrow, profoundly potholed road twists through dense jungle and climbs unbelievably steep gradients.
It runs alongside the 610 millimetre-wide narrow-gauge tracks of the World Heritage-listed Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, built from 1879, which staggers up the mountains on its nine-hour journey to Darjeeling.
The road, congested with trucks, vans, people and cows, passes a procession of picturesque tea gardens and winds through villages where houses seem to dangle on the edge of precipitous mountains. Drivers navigate with what seems a strict local code, tooting at corners and backing up when the road is too narrow for two cars to pass – which is frequently. At the halfway point, the temperature has already dropped a refreshing 10 degrees.
The Aga Khan Was Here
In a few scenic hours I'm transported from an India of chaotic towns and dusty villages to a captivating land where the locals – Nepalese, Tibetans, Sikkimese, Bhutanese and Lepchas (the region’s original inhabitants) – collectively known as Gorkhas – seem to live on the top of the world.
Darjeeling commands incredible views of the Himalayas, overshadowed by the glistening white peaks of Mt Kangchenjunga, the world's third highest mountain. The town is a mix of colonial mansions and churches, Hindu and Buddhist temples, and narrow streets crowded with shops, bazaars and ramshackle houses.
The Windamere Hotel, where photos of guests adorning the walls include Lord Mountbatten, the Aga Khan and Gone With the Wind star Vivian Leigh, who was born in Darjeeling in 1913, hasn't changed for a century.
It's difficult to believe you're in India at this relic of the British Raj – established in 1810, the Windamere seems transported from an English village. Guest lounges, where afternoon tea is the order of the day, are filled with chintz-covered armchairs.
I make my way across rose-festooned gardens to my bungalow, which features more chintz-covered furniture and an old-fashioned fireplace. In the misty morning I stroll to Observatory Hill, Darjeeling's highest point and home to Mahakal Temple, from where the chants of Buddhist monks echo bewitchingly across the mountains.
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Snow Leopards And Red Pandas
The town's hub, Chowrasta Square, has several bookshops, antique stores and cafes including the Fiesta, which serves momos, flavoursome Tibetan dumplings.
Darjeeling's Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, co-founded by Darjeeling local Tenzing Norgay who, with Sir Edmund Hillary, conquered Mt Everest in 1953, houses a fascinating collection of mountaineering memorabilia.
Adjacent is the Padmaja Naidu Zoological Park, home to endangered animals including snow leopards and red pandas.
Although only 12 kilometres from Darjeeling as the crow flies, it's a 1.5 hour drive across winding, rutted roads to Glenburn Tea Estate, a haven of 5-star luxury bordering the Indian province of Sikkim.
The estate's grand 150-year-old manager's residence and two contemporary bungalows offer every creature comfort. Meals, included in the tariff, include Indian, European, Asian and Nepali dishes, and are exceptional, while my room, the Planter's Suite, is comfort itself.
Allow at least three nights at this unique property, where you tour the tea factory, trek to local villages, go white water rafting on the Rung Dung River, take a bone-jarring drive to Camp Glenburn on the Rangeet River, the estate's quaint riverside lodge, or simply relax with some Darjeeling tea and take in the spellbinding grandeur of the Himalayas.
The best time to visit is from October to March, with the best mountain views during November and December.