In a guest room at the Windamere Hotel, a Thomas Cook brochure promotes a trip through Burma, Sri Lanka and India. From London, the four-month journey in first-class cabins on a P&O liner, with luxury hotel stays, entrance fees, transfers and porters costs just £550. I think I might be onto something, until I read that the trip departed in November 1927.
In many ways, the Windamere remains in that decade. Each of its 27 guest rooms has original toilets, claw-foot baths, frills-covered single beds and dark-timber lounge suites upholstered in paisley pink. Even the phones are original, which probably explains why they don’t work.
Originally a cluster of bungalows built in the late-19th century to house British bachelors working on Darjeeling’s tea estates and later converted to a hotel, the Windamere sits on Observation Hill, with views across the lush Himalayan foothills to Mount Kanchendzonga, the world’s third-highest mountain.
As one of the most exclusive addresses of the Bengal Hill station, the Windamere was the axis for society for almost 100 years. Sir Edmund Hillary set off on many of his Everest expeditions from here. Burmese freedom fighter Aung San Suu Kyi, literary genius Tagore and explorer Sir Francis Younghusband, among others, have stayed here. A young Queen Elizabeth warmed her toes by the hotel’s open fires.
Today’s guests are mostly sentimental tourists who spend their mornings in wicker chairs on geranium-lined terraces outside the main building, Ada Villa, hoping for the mist to lift from the Himalayas. Guests eat in the adjacent pink-hued dining hall, where polite white-gloved waiters bow slightly as they offer trays of English-style staples: steak-and-kidney pie with herbed mash; apple cake with creme anglaise. Afternoons are whiled away at high tea, with scones, jam and cream and pots of the pale golden-yellow tea that made these hills famous. At night guests retire to their flowery-styled rooms, where hot-water bottles dressed in flannelette are placed under the bed covers.
In 1835, the British Raj approached the Chogyal of Sikkim, then ruler of the tiny independent Tibetan kingdom formerly known as Dorje Ling – the place of thunderbolts. The British wanted to build a cool-climate sanatorium in Darjeeling, then part of the kingdom, for government workers toiling in the humid capital, Calcutta, now Kolkata. At 2000 metres and rich in rhododendrons growing as tall as houses, as well as other flowering plants, Darjeeling reminded the British a little of home.
Each summer, when temperatures in Calcutta rose to 40 degrees, British dignitaries, rulers and civil servants transplanted themselves to Darjeeling, where they could continue their parties, dances and gymkhanas at a more civilised temperature.
In 1879, the “toy train” locomotive service really put the hill station on the map. Winding 86 kilometres from New Jalpaiguri train station, on the outskirts of Siliguri in the dusty plains of Bengal, through tea estates and thick forests, the train cut the journey from Calcutta to Darjeeling from six days to two.
The World Heritage-listed train still operates, departing from New Jalpaiguri station at 9am each day and pulling into Darjeeling before dusk. Alternatively, a tourist ride chugs from Darjeeling to the antiquated station and museum in Ghum and back in two hours.
As with Darjeeling itself, the toy trains have seen better days. The ones I’ve travelled on are filthy, with stained reclining seats stuck in a lounge position, in carriages that fill with black smoke and embers billowing from coal-fired furnaces. Nor do they always work well. The first time I rode the toy train, in 1999, it derailed, coming within inches of a 400-metre drop. Yet there is something endearing about the trains: the red-hot fire boxes; watching car drivers waiting impatiently as a train criss-crosses the road; feeling the last surge of power as the locomotive struggles to climb an embankment. This was considered the cutting edge of technology a century ago.
By the time India achieved independence, Darjeeling had been reassigned from Sikkim to the Indian state of Bengal. A drawn-out fight for autonomy by the town’s majority Gurkha community has strained its once-thriving economy. But Darjeeling remains a tourist town, dominated by Kolkatans relishing in the cold weather and the novelty of dressing in down jackets and thick socks, which they wear under plastic thongs.
The main tourist area fans out from the “Chowrasta”, the central square, where scrawny ponies are offered for rides, trinket shops sell Tibetan paraphernalia and businesses have names such as Good Feel Hotel, the Pleasure Palace and Hot Stimulating Cafe. It’s fun to potter about in hole-in-the-wall shops selling everything from pomegranates to frilly dresses, or walk hillside lanes too narrow for jeeps. Worth browsing at is the Tea Emporium (Laden-la Road; teaemporium.com), which sells first-flush Darjeeling tea, and a brilliant bookshop, Oxford Book and Stationery, on the Chowrasta, which has good-value paperbacks and rare volumes on Buddhism and Tibetology.
Apart from the cool summers and the mist, modern Darjeeling retains little of its British heritage. Gone are the clubs, races and gymkhanas; nowadays even the restaurants shut at 8pm. For pomp, ceremony and a taste of the customs of the Raj, head to the Windamere.
The Windamere Hotel has rooms from 11,800 rupees ($218) a night. See windamerehotel.com.