Beyond Calcutta: The Glenburn Tea Estate

A journey to a boutique inn on a working plantation outside Darjeeling suits Janice Blackburn to, well, a tea.

“This better be worth it,” I muttered as my husband and I drove into the Glenburn Tea Estate, in the foothills of the Himalayas. Over the course of the scary three-hour car trip from the airport in Bagdogra—itself an hour-long flight from Calcutta—we’d survived winding mountain roads, plunging slopes, and the occasional contretemps with an approaching truck. It was a hair-raising experience even in the comfort of a spacious chauffeured car.

But the estate’s forests of sal and teak, endless rows of verdant tea bushes, and backdrop of the majestic Kanchenjunga peaks revived my flagging spirits—as did the cups of delicate fresh Darjeeling tea that greeted us upon arrival. These were accompanied by scrumptious tea-leaf pakoras (deep-fried fritters), dainty sandwiches (crusts removed, of course), and homemade brownies and cookies, all served on fine bone china. We were instantly charmed.

Glenburn, a 1,600-acre tea plantation, dates back to 1860, when it was founded by a Scottish company. About an hour from Darjeeling, the hotel captures the feeling of the many British hill stations that dotted this area, providing the governors of the Raj respite from Calcutta’s stifling summers, and today it remains so picturesque that it almost seems fake, like a set from a Merchant Ivory costume drama. But it’s not. The plantation and factory are still in use, which makes for a wonderfully authentic guest experience.

About seven years ago Husnah-Tara Prakash, the daughter-in-law of the current owner, restored Burra Bungalow, the original planter’s colonial guesthouse, and it now contains four lovely suites, each individually decorated with hand-painted furniture, floaty muslin curtains, and hand-embroidered bed linens. Vases and jugs of fresh garden flowers are everywhere—purple and pink sweet peas, cornflowers, and sweet scented roses. This month the Water Lily Villa, a newly built colonial-style cottage, will join the bungalow. Perched on the edge of a hill and facing the glorious mountain range, the villa will contain another four suites, these with four-poster beds and luxe bathrooms.

Neena Pradhan, the ever-efficient manager and hostess who oversees the property’s attentive staff, makes sure of everything, from the morning “bed tea” brought on trays to your room to the more formal breakfasts served on the veranda to the cozy hot-water bottles tucked into your bed at night. Dinner, a candlelit affair served at a long table in the dining room, arrives family-style, and the hotel welcomes guests into the small, spotless kitchen to observe the preparations. Laundry comes back smelling deliciously fresh and perfectly folded (rather surprisingly, the service is included in the room rate). And we hiked for about three hours each morning, happy in the knowledge that a soothing massage with green-tea oil awaited us upon our return.

Prakash Sharma, our guide on these hikes, led us up and down narrow, dusty trails, past clusters of brightly painted houses, the odd village shop, and numerous Hindu and Buddhist shrines. We saw groups of schoolchildren, immaculately uniformed and eager to practice their few words of English. Prakash told us the names of fruit trees and wildflowers and pointed out healing plants—including one that he swore could cure high blood pressure.

The walks usually ended by the Rangeet River, where a two-bedroom pavilion provides a getaway for Glenburn guests. The river here teems with trout and local fish, and Sanjay Sharma, the estate manager, can arrange fishing excursions. But we were happy enough to enjoy the lunch served in true Raj style on tables laid with cheery checked cloths. (Servers trek on ahead of hikers to set up.) Tasty morsels of spicy barbecued chicken preceded salads and quiches, and grilled baby bananas in a caramelized gingery syrup made for a mouthwatering dessert.

Sanjay also arranges guided tours of the tea factory, a mandatory part of the Glenburn experience. Aspects of the labor-intensive teamaking process are visible everywhere: From the bungalows you see women in vibrant saris picking leaves and carrying them to the factory in baskets elegantly balanced on their heads. On the tour—which ends with a tea tasting conducted as seriously as a similar wine-focused sampling—we watched as workers spread the leaves on long trays to air overnight, then sorted, graded, and packed another set of leaves into handmade tea chests.

Replicas of those tea chests, by the way, are sold at the inn’s small shop and pack quite easily, I learned, making them the perfect way to take a little piece of Glenburn home with you. The smell and flavor of the Darjeeling bring back memories of this heavenly place.

Glenburn’s nightly rate of $430 includes meals, airport transfers from Bagdogra, transportation, and most excursions (91-33/2288-5630; glenburnteaestate.com).