On my fifth visit to India, I finally made it to Darjeeling – a place I had wanted to go since my first trip five years ago. It takes dedication to get to the town in the Himalayan foothills, developed as a summer hill station during the British Raj and famous for its deliciously floral tea. After flying into Bagdogra, or taking a train to New Jalpaiguri station, you must then embark on a 3-4 hour jeep ride to climb into Darjeeling. There is also the famous toy train, but that journey takes 7 hours or more; better to save it for the shorter “joy rides” from Darjeeling.
Once there, however, the views are spectacular, rolling green hills dotted with villages and tea plantations, all overshadowed by the majestic, snow-capped Himalayas towering above. After my long journey on planes, trains and automobiles I was happy to arrive at Shangri-la Regency, a cozy small hotel that is perfect for independent, mid-range travelers looking for comfort and coziness without a high price tag or unnecessary frills.
I was led to my attic room on the top floor, up five flights of steps. The Shangri-la is reminiscent of an urban townhome – tall and narrow, with a couple of rooms on each floor. All twelve guest rooms are individually designed and feature floor-to-ceiling windows with amazing views of the Kanchenjunga mountain range, soft natural lighting, hand-made quilts, cable television, telephone, wardrobe and private bathrooms. Some also have private balconies. Heaters and even hot water bottles are provided to chase away the chilly nights of winter. Twin and king bed configurations are available.
The center stairway of the hotel ascends in an airy atrium, and at the fourth floor you will find the lounge and dining area. This is where breakfast is served (included with the room, also can be served en-suite), and you can also order dinner to be served here, or enjoy some tea or wine with a good book, in front of the fireplace. There is a well-stocked bar, and free wi-fi is available at the rooftop lounge. Stunning views from the wrap-around windows give an amazing 270-degree view.
The staff are all pleasant and friendly, and strive hard to accommodate your requests about hotel service, or sightseeing around Darjeeling. Shangri-la Regency is a great family spot as well; although the stairs may be a concern for very small children.
The wonderfully cool climate, clear brisk air and the breathtaking views of the Himalayas drew the British here to escape the stifling heat of Kolkota. It is still a very popular place for honeymooners, trekkers and others seeking to escape the heat from lower elevations.
The mountains are a big draw, visible from most points of town and irresistible to trekkers. You can spend a couple of hours or the whole day hiking nearby; Tiger Hill at sunrise is particularly stunning. There are also more than 70 tea gardens in the region that make for a fascinating day. In town, visit Mahakal Temple on the highest point – watch out for the monkeys! Several interesting Buddhist monasteries are nearby, as well as the famous Himalayan Mountaineering Institute. Don’t miss a joy ride on the historic Toy Train, operating since 1879 and designated World Heritage Site; or simply ply the market vendors and antiques/curio shops that line the small, winding lanes throughout town.
The two high seasons are between April and June, and from October to December. During these months the mountains are clearly visible especially if you are an early riser! You will need to bring warm clothes throughout the year but particularly from November onwards; the climate is temperate with temperatures ranging only between 12 and 25 in the summer and between 1.5 and 10 degrees during the winter. 1.5 and 24 degrees.
21 Gandhi Road (Opposite Bethany school)
Telephone: 0091 354 2258329
Rates: 1,200-2,750 Rupees per night (approx. $28-63), inclusive of breakfast
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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.