During the last Christmas holiday, we spent a week at Darjeeling. But our focus was to base at Queen of Hills and go around a few offbeat locations at a driving distance from Darjeeling. We also hoped to witness snowfall in Darjeeling in the back of the mind.
The Padatik Express (12377) reached NJP station before 9 am. We hopped in our car in the next 15 minutes and zoomed towards Darjeeling. Mr Pratish Pradan, who drives a perfectly maintained WagonR was the chauffeur for our trip. One may reach him at 7908669452 to avail of his service. We stayed in Camellia House – a private three-bedroom apartment booked from Airbnb. Or may call Noel directly at 6364004650.
8.30 am – The following day, we got up late, but it was still dark outside. An irritating faint knocking sound on the window did wake me. I reluctantly moved the curtains and what I saw outside made me rub my eyes. It’s snowing! The snowflakes were knocking against the glass panes.
With uncontrollable excitement, we decided the venture to Chowrasta. Foggy weather conditions and low visibility forced most people to stay indoors, barring a few excited tourists like us from the plains who flocked the hills to witness the snowfall. The temperature was 3°C and, thankfully, was not windy. We did experience snowfall earlier, but it was a lifetime experience for kids – their first snowfall.
I was awestruck to see that still there is a long queue out Kev’s for breakfast. Adverse weather did not allow us to stay out for long; we had to come back after spending a couple of hours. The rest of the day was lazing on the couch, watching online streaming and enjoying our favourite poison. We had Darjeeling offbeat locations travel plans the following days. But not sure about the feasibility in the present climatic conditions.
6.00 am – The alarm goes off. What torture during holidays! The room is freezing outside the electric blanket. Saw the first glimpse of sunlight on the peak. An SMS flashing on the screen “Sir Ji, weather is clear. Be ready at 8.30”. I was about to ignore the alarm, then suddenly remembered our driver would honk in the next 90 minutes. Better wake up, make the kids ready and all set to a great day ahead. Around 9 am, after completing our banana pancake in breakfast, it is time we hit the road. Excited to think of the memories we are going to make today.
Lepchajagat is 18 km from Darjeeling, at an altitude of 6959 feet. As the name suggests, the place was once predominantly a settlement by the Lepcha tribe. Today the tiny hamlet is significantly a reserve forest area filled with thick oak, firs and rhododendron trees. The offbeat forest is 45 minutes driving from Darjeeling.
During fog, the forest has romanticism and suspense in the air. The peace and serene tranquillity of the forest is a reason for its popularity. While we were exploring the forest, the kids were so spellbound with the beauty that they sat quietly at a vantage point and gazed curiously through the fog to spot the chirping of birds or buzzing sound of crickets.
One can stay at the West Bengal Forest Department Corporation (WBFDC) Lodge or numerous local roadside homestays with basic accommodations. Room tariff ranges from INR 1000 to INR 3500 per night.
On our way to Mirik, the lush emerald green tea estate makes the journey more pleasant while inhaling the rustic smell from the fresh cutting. Gopaldhara Tea Estate, located in offbeat Mirik valley, is one of the highest tea estates in Darjeeling. Established in 1861, the present proprietors have owned it since 1955. At its highest, the garden reaches 2100 meters elevation, higher than any other tea garden in the Darjeeling area. The next call was a mandatory photo stop and introduced kids to the tea leaves.
Mirik is popularly known for its lakes and mountains – a place to feel Nainital and Munnar. The top attraction of Mirik is the lake, with a garden on one side of its bank and tall trees on the other. An arching footbridge connected both the banks. A beeline of parked cars outside the garden and a plethora of food stalls and hawkers spoils the tranquillity of the place.
Tabakoshi is 6 km ahead of Mirik and a sleepy hamlet on the banks of the Rangbhang river at an altitude of 3800 feet. The hamlet gets its name from two Nepali words, tamba meaning copper and koshi meaning river, which is also an extension of the Gopaldhara tea estate. The Rangbhang river flows by this little village.
The approaching roads are in a sorry state, a word of caution for the travellers with back pain. Many local drivers discourage to travel due to road conditions. Stay either at local homestays and farmhouses or can opt for riverside camping. Daily tariff ranges from INR 1200 to INR 3500.
Phew! what a day was it today. The last part of the journey did have a toll on us. Already made up my mind that I will wake up late tomorrow.
7.00 am – I was still running around the pine trees amidst the thick fog in my dreams. I can hear a distant ringing sound. Gradually the sound became prominent, and then someone pushed me from behind. Oh! Wait that is my wife asking me to answer the ringing phone. Our driver on the other side reminded us to call that he would be picking us up in the next hour. He might have heard me speaking about waking up late today.
Kurseong is 30 km away from Darjeeling. Kurseong in the local Lepcha language translates to ‘The Land of White Orchids’. We grabbed quick bites at Margaret’s Hope before heading to Makaibari Tea Estate.
Makaibari Tea Estate
The Makaibari Tea Estate is one of the most popular and recognized Darjeeling tea estates globally. Established in 1859 and considered the first tea plant factory in India. The well-maintained winding roads within the estate took us to the estate’s highest point. As far as the eye can see, an endless tea garden along with mountain slopes. The view is tranquil, and the silence is only broken occasionally by passing traffic.
Dow Hill and Death Road
Dow Hill was the most anticipated destination on the trip, where there is no shortage of paranormal rumours and stories. Hence the area is labelled as haunted! The road between the Dow Hill and the forest office, locals named it the Death Road. Here, the locals often report a blood-curdling account of a young headless boy walking on the road and disappearing into the woods.
Time for the reality check. The natural beauty of Dow Hill will be a feast for the eyes. One will find mesmerizing green environment, winding roads, lush green forests and sunlight peeping through dense forest. Fewer tourists go to this offbeat Darjeeling location due to rumours surrounding the place; hence the pristine beauty of the pine forest is untouched, and the roads are clean. Even the kids hiked through the dense pine forest while we sat on the traffic-free road for a fun time. It feels sad to hear such baseless rumours in today’s age.
There are several budget-friendly hotels, a few expensive resorts, and even homestays in Kurseong or the primary market area as per one’s budget.
7.30 am – The new year’s morning always comes with a hangover. The last night we discussed our Dow Hill experiences and past eerie feelings with countless favourite drinks until midnight. But today, it’s a new day, a new morning and a new year. We wanted to keep this relaxed by exploring orange orchards in offbeat Sittong from Darjeeling.
Sittong is a Lepcha village famous for its Darjeeling oranges, reportedly of the best quality. Every house in Sittong has a garden, and every garden has orange trees. The whole village turns yellow between December and January. Unfortunately, only a few gardens allow tourist entry to protect the harvest against an inflated ticket price of INR 50. Orchards prohibit the plucking of oranges. In our case, the orchard owner guided us through the walk and plucked a handful of oranges for us. Oh yes, the craze is real; the oranges are so sweet!
Ahaldara is about a kilometre from Sittong. The location is a hilltop, and one has to walk up around 500 metres to reach the viewpoint. Ahaldara offers a 360-degree view of the surrounding area. On a clear day, Mt Kanchenjunga will be visible along with valleys, tea plantations and the Teesta river. Huts on the hilltop of offbeat Darjeeling have night stay arrangements and witness the spectacular sunrise at Ahaldara.
Kachenjunga from Darjeeling
The final morning is always the saddest moment on a trip. After a series of poor weather, the day was bright and sunny. Never saw Kanchenjunga from Darjeeling. This morning my luck favoured; she was visible! The mountain range view was not as clear as Pelling, but the eternal classic view from the mall road completed my trip. I could not ask for a better ending.
How to reach Darjeeling
By Air: The airport nearest to Gangtok is about 70 kilometres away in Bagdogra. You can hire a shared taxi or a private vehicle to Darjeeling from the airport.
By Train: The nearest railway station to Gangtok is about 75 kilometres away in New Jalpaiguri in Siliguri. The station is well-connected to major cities like Kolkata and New Delhi. From New Jalpaiguri, one can take a taxi to Darjeeling or go to Siliguri Bus Station and catch a state-run bus.
Toy Train: Train leaves New Jalpaiguri at 10 am and reaches Darjeeling via Kurseong at 5.20 pm.
By Road/Self-Drive: Tourists rolling in from nearby places like Siliguri, Kalimpong and Kolkata prefer to drive to Darjeeling. The roads are not well-maintained, parking will be a challenge in Darjeeling unless the accommodation has private parking.
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