DARJEELING India (Reuters) - Darjeeling, for many people, means tea, but the eponymous hill resort nestled in the Himalayas in India’s northeast is also a gateway to spectacular views of the world’s third highest peak as well as a rare glimpse of snow leopards and red pandas.
There also are reminders of India’s colonial past, including a narrow-gauge railway known as the “Toy Train” that makes a tourist run into the hills under power of a steam locomotive.
Visitors willing to make the extra pilgrimage to Sikkim, the Indian state to the north of West Bengal, where Darjeeling is located, can get a taste of Tibetan culture without visiting the Chinese-ruled region.
Here are tips for getting the most out of a trip to Darjeeling and nearby areas from Reuters, whose 2,600 journalists in all parts of the world offer visitors the best local insights.
The closest airport, Bagdogra, is 90 km (56 miles) from Darjeeling. Perched at an altitude of 2,134 meters (7,000 feet), Darjeeling is said to have derived its name from Dorje-ling, which means “land of the mystic thunderbolt”.
The best time to visit is October to November or February to April. It’s never too warm in Darjeeling and there is often a drizzle. Taxis ferrying tourists often jam the narrow lanes, and cabs sometimes dash across the rail tracks that run alongside, causing drivers of the slow-moving “Toy Train” to sound a warning hoot.
The World Heritage railway, opened in 1881, is a tourist magnet for a leisurely ride on narrow gauge tracks, offering splendid views of cloud-capped hillsides and people going about their daily routines.
Take the 8 a.m. joy ride from Darjeeling to Ghum, India’s highest railway station at an elevation of 2,258 m (7,407 feet). The two-hour return journey (for 400 rupees or $7) includes stopovers at a rail museum and a spiral rail loop with panoramic vistas. It’s advisable to book tickets online before you visit.
Backpackers and budget travelers can take a room at the government tourist lodge, next door to St. Andrews, an Anglican church built in 1843. The well-heeled can spend their days at the Windamere, a heritage hotel that started as a boarding house for British tea planters in the 19th century. Room tariffs start at 9,500 rupees ($155) a night, with meals.
It also is possible to stay at some of the tea plantations. One of the estates advertising rooms is the Glenburn Tea Estate & Boutique Hotel (www.glenburnteaestate.com).
Catch a glimpse of snow-capped Mount Kanchenjunga, the world’s third highest mountain with an elevation of 8,586 m (28,169 feet). Hundreds of tourists visit Tiger Hill, 13 km (8 miles) from Darjeeling, for a magnificent view of the sunrise; some arriving 4 a.m. to beat the rush. Beware, though, the fickle weather often shrouds the mountain in a veil of fog.
For something more dependable, drop in at Glenary’s bakery for their signature cakes and chocolates. Enjoy non-spicy continental and Chinese fare in the restaurant on the first floor where an average meal for two would cost about 500 rupees ($8). Try and get there early for dinner as service starts winding down at 9 p.m. in this early-to-bed town.
On the pedestrian Mall road, try on hand-knitted sweaters, browse souvenir shops and buy some of Darjeeling’s famous tea, plucked from the verdant estates that dot the hillsides.
Head to the Darjeeling zoo - tickets start at 40 Indian rupees (65 U.S. cents) - where the snow leopard and red panda are the pick of the lot.
Outside the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute and museum, next door to the zoo, stands a memorial to Tenzing Norgay, the first man to scale Mount Everest along with Sir Edmund Hillary in 1953.
And for a spectacular view of the tea plantations, take a ride on the Darjeeling cable car ride (tickets start at 150 rupees or $2.50).
Kalimpong is a three-hour drive away, but on the way stop at Lovers’ Meet for a breathtaking view of the confluence of the Teesta and Rangeet rivers. Also take a break at Lamahatta and laze in a landscaped garden surrounded by fluttering Buddhist prayer flags. Try chicken momos or steamed dumplings served with pepper-hot sauce at the roadside stalls.
In Kalimpong, don’t miss Deolo Point for a panoramic view of the Himalayas. If you are in the mood for adventure, the town is situated at an altitude of 1,200 m (4,000 feet) and is a popular paragliding and river-rafting destination. You also can see the imposing Mangal Dham temple, or mingle with novice monks playing soccer at Buddhist monasteries.
The Lonely Planet tourist guides listed Sikkim as the best region to travel to in 2014 (bit.ly/1ssPQSV). Foreign nationals need restricted-area permits to visit this northeastern Himalayan state bordering Tibet. Gangtok, the hilltop capital at an altitude of 1,676 m (5,498 feet), is a four-hour drive from Darjeeling.
MG Marg, Gangtok’s pedestrian-only main street and shopping district, is a tourist’s delight, featuring a range of restaurants and a plaza that is its cultural hub. Try the pastries at the Baker’s Cafe; the view is a definite plus.
Dozens of hotels, budget and luxury, line the streets next to MG Marg. City tours in the ubiquitous taxis, usually begin with the Ban Jhakri waterfall and picnic spot before moving on to the various monasteries that dot the hillsides.
The Enchey monastery, founded in 1840, is perhaps the most famous, with the entrance flanked by hundreds of Buddhist prayer wheels and flags printed with lines from scripture.
At the Namgyal Institute of Tibetology, visitors can pore over one of the largest collections of Buddhist literature and artifacts. Monks light butter lamps and meditate at the Do-Drul Chorten pagoda complex next door.
Ganesh Tok is a temple-cum-viewpoint, and in case you missed it in Darjeeling, offers tourists another glimpse of Kanchenjunga. Gangtok also has its own cable car, a 10-minute ride that offers a panoramic view of the town below.
Tourists to Sikkim will benefit from a new airport near Gangtok that is set to begin operations before 2016.
Editing by Michael Roddy and Robert Birsel