It’s often been said that nothing worthwhile is easy. This is a perfect way to describe Glenburn Tea Estate, which cannot in any terms be depicted as easy to get to. You have to want to go to Glenburn; you have to be dedicated, really. Starting from Kolkata or Delhi you fly into Bagdogra Airport or take the train to New Jalpaiguri station; from there it is either a 5-hour car ride along steep, winding, bumpy mountain roads or you can take the famous Darjeeling Toy Train – although this will take 7 hours or longer just to arrive in Darjeeling, and from there it’s still an hour and a half to Glenburn by car.
But let me put your mind to rest – all of this is exceedingly worth it. First of all, although it is rather jostling the ride is magnificent, with some of the most spectacular views on earth of the world’s highest mountains, and green valleys below dotted with villages and farms. And once you have arrived at Glenburn, you will understand the draw that this magical place has.
This district of West Bengal, shoehorned right in between Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan, lies in the foothills of the Roof of the World and is unlike anywhere else in India. With a large Nepali population, and a fair number of Tibetans as well, it has more of the feel of those places than of India. The vistas are breathtaking, and the historic Glenburn estate provides an active yet pampering experience you’ll never forget.
Glenburn is a heavenly little plantation retreat that lies on a hillock above the banks of the River Rungeet, high in the Himalayas, overlooked by the mighty Kanchenjunga mountain range. Started by a Scottish tea company in 1859, Glenburn passed into the hands of one of India’s pioneering tea planting families, The Prakashes, over a hundred years ago. Today, the third and fourth generation Prakash family, carry almost a century of tea knowledge in their inheritance, and share it with their guests at Glenburn.
The main Burra Bungalow, the century-old original Prakash home, was lovingly restored to its original grandeur in 2001 and now houses four guest rooms, each with a different theme. Some have single rooms attached, allowing spacious accommodations for families or third/fourth guests. The Burra Bungalow also has a wide front verandah, cozy living room with library, and sumptuous dining hall where gourmet candle-lit guest dinners are held every night.
In 2008 the new Water Lily Bungalow was built, providing four additional guest rooms. Each bungalow has a common salon for gathering, terraces and verandahs for breakfast or reading a book, and beautiful gardens. There is also a large meeting room and a Massage & Steam room in the Water Lily Bungalow. All rooms are decorated with antique furniture, old Burma teak flooring, overhead fans, free-standing bathtubs, and large, comfortable beds with hand-embroidered linen. Some also feature fireplaces, old restored cast-iron window frames, skylights, rain showers and private balconies from which to enjoy the amazing views of the majestic Himalayan mountain range, and the 1,000 acres of private forest on the estate.
Glenburn also operates a Lodge and Campsite, about a two-hour hike away (and also driveable). The campsite is a rustic yet comfortable two-bedroom cabin along the river, for a true nature experience. Because the focus at Glenburn is on nature and relaxation, there are no televisions, phones or internet connection in any of the accommodations. But really, guests come to Glenburn to get away from all that – and there is no better place in the world to do so, nestled in the Himalayan foothills amid acres of rolling green tea gardens.
A wide selection of board games and books is available for guest use, as well as a collection of movies that can be watched in the main Living Room. A music system is also available with a small collection of classical music on CD. A computer and phone are available in the office for guest use if desired. But one of the best activities on the estate is to sit on the terrace and read, or wander through the gardens, or simply gaze in awe at the snow-capped Himalayan peaks jutting into the sky.
One of the real pleasures of a stay at Glenburn is the food. All meals, snacks and refreshments are included in the tariff, and menus are planned according to the preferences of each guest. The menus comprise a range of cuisine – from interesting local fare and traditional Indian dishes, to exotic South-East Asian delicacies, and a variety of European dishes making full use of the fresh fruit, vegetables, herbs and spices from the well-stocked garden. The staff bakes all fresh bread and makes their own marmalade, along with a whole collection of signature cakes and cookies. Dinners at Glenburn are famous for the camaraderie and congeniality around the table, as well as the stimulating, amusing and often unusual conversations that take place among the guests. You are likely to meet people from all around the world. Picnic meals can also be arranged, for a hike or down at the Glenburn Campsite.
Your hosts, Neena and Nazma, are gracious and most helpful in arranging any of the numerous activities that Glenburn offers. Walking guides Prakash, Neelima and Luna offer forth a wealth of information on the plants, birds and wildlife you’ll see on treks around the estate and area. Other popular activities include fishing, river rafting, cooking classes and massage treatments.
The Glenburn “tea estate” experience was inspired by the vineyards of Europe; that touring and tasting process inspired the family to open their estate for tourists who may be interested in knowing how a tea leaf makes it to their cup. Tea Estate Manager Sanjay Sharma leads guests on a tour of the tea factory, including a tasting, and is incredibly informative about the process – as well as highly entertaining, with colorful stories.
Hiking is also a big attraction, and Glenburn remains perhaps the only destination in India where you can walk all day and return to luxury at night. Treks from one hour to an entire day can be arranged with one of the knowledgeable guides; you can hike to local villages, the suspension bridge to Sikkim, the river, a convent, or even Darjeeling Town if you’re feeling especially hardy!
Because Glenburn has been a working tea estate for more than a century, all of the surrounding thousands of acres, and the eight nearest villages, are all part of the estate. The Prakash family takes its commitment to those workers and their families seriously, building a house for each of them as well as operating a hospital and the Kalakendra Academy for performing arts. Glenburn heavily supports the local school and contributes books and other supplies, and sponsors several primary school children. Glenburn guests are welcomed to visit the schools or a Kalakendra performance.
Glenburn Tea Estate
Darjeeling District, India
Phone : +91 33 2288 5630/1805
Fax: +91 33 2288 3581
Rates: 15,000-22,000 Rupees per night (approx. $330-450), inclusive of all meals, non-alcoholic drinks, most activities, laundry, transport to/from airport or Darjeeling, tours, taxes, tips and service charges. Only additional costs are alcoholic drinks, massage services and river rafting.
Shelley Seale is a freelance writer based out of Austin Texas, but she vagabonds in any part of the world whenever possible. Shelley has written for National Geographic, Globe Pequot’s Insider travel guides, CNN, AOL, USA Today and Andrew Harper Traveler Magazine among others. Her book, The Weight of Silence: Invisible Children of India, follows her journeys into the orphanages, streets and slums of India where millions of children live without families. Her mantra is “travel with a purpose.” She can be reached at shelleyseale.com.
Check out more of Shelley’s work in her 52 Perfect Days stories: 1949 Hidden City: Beijing’s Hippest New Spot.