Just in time to escape Calcutta’s thermometer-busting heat and record-smashing humidity, I discovered Glenburn, a refreshing retreat outside Darjeeling, where West Bengal’s plains rise to meet the Himalayas.
enburn is truly world-class. A stay at Glenburn offers many layers of enjoyment: the beauty of Darjeeling’s scenery and fascination of the Hill culture; the elegance of restored and new tea bungalows with heritage furnishings and tasteful decoration; the delight of delectable cuisine, much of it made with ingredients grown on-site; and the luxury of a well-trained and responsive staff, who embody the highest standards of hospitality.
The hills are alive
The experience began before I reached Glenburn. My journey on the overnight Darjeeling Express from Calcutta to Siliguri was a great part of the adventure. In the air-conditioned second tier, I had a pleasant bunk with clean sheets and towels. I was travelling by myself (my family flew ahead of me), but I was not alone, the atmosphere felt like an extended family picnic, surrounded by the comforting chatter of all my Indian aunties and uncles settling in for the night. I woke up the next morning and propped open a door to watch the beautiful Bengal countryside scroll by the train as it sliced through the chicken-neck between Nepal and Bangladesh and into New Jalpaiguri station.
I was met at the train by Prakash, who sported the teal Glenburn poloshirt that I came to associate with helpful service. He offered me a refreshing glass of nimbu pani (lemonade) and a cool towel, and we started off on our journey.
The drive through the Teesta River Valley to Glenburn is as beautiful as it is harrowing. It is breathtaking, in every meaning of the word. We passed groups of colourfully-dressed women, who seemed to chatter away gaily as they picked tea and flung the small sprigs expertly over their shoulders and into wicker baskets strapped to their foreheads. We stopped at the top of one mountain ridge where a phalanx of colourful prayer flags flapped in the wind, solemn sentries before a majestic stand of tall evergreens.
And then, just when it seemed we were on top of the world, we broke off the main road and began a descent that crossed back and forth, like the laces on a shoe, dropping down the valley through thick forests, occasional towns, incongruous boulders and hillsides carpeted with tea bushes. With their single-height bushes and intermittent tree cover, tea estates have a distinctive look, but it is the smell that always signals to me I’ve arrived. The smell of Glenburn’s tea gardens — evoking unspoiled air, cool breezes and unhurried evenings — sets the mood for the experience.
For us, refugees from Calcutta’s hustling, bustling, horn-honking heat, Glenburn was an abode of exercise, relaxation and healthy eating. The food is absolutely superb, especially remarkable given the remote location. We munched on greens fresh from the garden, coloured with edible flower blossoms. The menu boasts surprising diversity: European dishes, Thai and Burmese, and grilled fish and chicken with Indian spices. Breakfasts we enjoyed out-of-doors, in the shade of a pomelo tree. Lunches and dinners were taken family-style, in the main lodge, or as quiet, in-room affairs, depending on the mood. I should correct myself: this would be healthy eating, if we didn’t leave each meal so overstuffed. But what to do, when presented with fresh profiteroles, drizzled in chocolate or warm apple cobbler, drowning in cream? Yes, I do think I’ll have another, thank you.
Fortunately, the opportunities to eat well at Glenburn are well-matched by the opportunities to work off those calories in pleasant fashion. We went for short walks around the grounds, stopping to watch the process of drying, sorting and packaging the world-famous Glenburn teas. We went for medium walks, exploring nearby villages and stopping to watch local games of cricket, played at impossible angles on the steep hillsides. And we went for daylong treks, including a memorable walk down the valley to soak in the cool water of the Rung Dung river that rushed through the channel on the valley floor.
Our stay was too short to enjoy everything Glenburn has to offer, including day trips to Darjeeling and hikes further afield. More than anything, I would have loved more time to sit and enjoy the peaceful ambience, wonderful staff and, of course, the delicious food.
The author is the economic and political adviser at the American Consulate
How to get there: Take the train, bus or fly. Going first-class by train means arriving first thing in the morning and adding a few extra hours to each stay, plus the adventures of the train.
When to go: Anytime. Pick your season (it can get cold in winter) and pack accordingly, but Glenburns charms dont have a high/low season; theyre high throughout the year.
What to pack: Sturdy walking shoes with comfortable clothes for easy strolls and more strenuous walks. Dont forget your camera, but you can leave your books behind and partake of Glenburns well-stocked library. Definitely bring an appetite.
A word of caution: The drive through the hills can be challenging for even the heartiest of dispositions. Bring motion sickness medication if you need it, but also dont be afraid to ask your driver to take it slow or pull over for frequent breaks.