Craning my neck, I stood in a sort of warped yoga pose, eyes straining hard, one leg hanging over the edge of what would be a 2,600m fall if I slipped. It was 5am. We were on Tiger Hill, about 10km from Darjeeling in the state of West Bengal in east India, to catch its legendary sunrise – a ball of fire rising from the East behind the Himalayas. Thousands of people stood there, all facing the same way. A cool breeze picked up, turned into a brisk wind, howling its way through hoodies and thick coats. Towards the north the town lay, on slopes, still sleepy, small bustles of activity in little corners.
Ahead, mist shrouded a panorama of glinting white.
Then, it lifted. A layer of orange pierced through and from the dark, one by one, snowy peaks emerged, bathed in so many different hues.
There it was. The mighty 8,586m Kanchenjunga with its five snow peaks, the third-highest mountain in the world. Adjacent, like a grand painting unfolding, other snow-clad, sunlight-tinged mountains materialised.
Suddenly, everything – from the 3am wake-up call and hour-long drive to the winding walk up the incline, and elbow-to-elbow crowds… all of it seemed worth it.
Amassive tourist attraction, Tiger Hill comes with its commercial underpinnings – such as the many local women standing around me carrying huge barrels who trek to the point around midnight every day during peak season to sell cups of hot coffee and tea to the throngs in the cold.
We were among the lucky few to have caught the phenomenon from the hill – most of the time, cloudy weather and even rain obstruct the spectacular views.
This was the second leg of a trip that began at the splendid northeast state, Sikkim – commonly referred to as the Switzerland of the East.
Jet Airways’ business class seats were perfect for relaxing on the short-haul flight from Dubai to Delhi, while the meal was a scrumptious affair.
We’d started from Dubai on a Jet Airways flight, in the fantastic business class cabin with spacious seats, plenty of legroom, a comfy footrest, and my favourite feature – a generous elbow rest. It was late in the night and I was in no mood to fight for my fair share! A few minutes after take off, a steward arrived with a big smile as well as piping hot dinner of prawn curry with rice, potatoes and carrots. It was all fancy china, white linen and metal cutlery, served with a great touch of personal service. A perfect start to a holiday, I thought.
Finishing up some ice cream, I played around with the buttons on the seat for a very comfortable recline and settled down for a contented nap.
A quick three hours later, we reached Delhi’s swanky Indira Gandhi International Airport. Since we had plenty of time, before boarding our connecting flight to Bagdogra in West Bengal, we relaxed with some coffee, hot idlis and made-to-order eggs, and even had a foot massage done in the spa room within the lounge, followed by some retail therapy at several stores around the cavernous airport.
A two-hour flight from Delhi later, we arrived at the tiny Bagdogra airport, ready to head into Gangtok, Sikkim’s capital. While travel literature says it’s a four-hour drive, it takes well past five. The ascent, road widening work and hairpin turns might have something to do with this, but it’s a great road trip with just lush green mountains all around.
So when we saw the twinkling lights of our haven and home for two nights, the five-star Mayfair Spa Resort and Casino in Ranipool, a half-hour’s drive from Gangtok, we were nothing short of thrilled. We walked into a warm open courtyard with a centrepiece of a huge rock dancing on a fountain. Little cottages designed combining colonial and Sikkimese architecture with contemporary touches dotted the mountainside, their dazzling lights blinking merrily. All through our stay, we discovered quirky little artefacts hidden in different corners of the hotel, from life-size kneeling statues to gem-studded paintings and multicoloured dancing sculptures of local women. Set in the backdrop of Himalayan forests, it was like our own little slice of heaven near the skies.
The Mayfair resort in Sikkim effortlessly channels the best of northeast India’s art and architecture, without scrimping on modcons.
Part of a seven-hotel chain in four Indian states (Odisha, Goa, Sikkim and West Bengal), the Mayfair has garnered a reputation for luxurious, world-class facilities in Eastern India.
With villas offering everything from a private butler to heated pools, lavish bathrooms and even a grill outdoors if you feel like some barbecue meats as well as a bright, airy spa; games room; outdoor café, three restaurants/lounges (including one with views of the famous Rumtek Monastery that we would visit later); a fitness centre and kids’ area, luxurious it was.
The pleasant, beaming staff were quick to escort us to our rooms. After a quick buffet dinner in the Orchid restaurant downstairs, with everything from live cooking stations for kebabs, grilled veggies and fluffy bread to delicious perfectly spiced fish and mutton curries, I headed to my room, looking forward to the morning when I’d be able to see the brilliant views from my private balcony.
Throwing open the curtains next morning, they didn’t disappoint. Lush dense green hills that almost touched the clouds, with fingers of mist reaching out towards me, stared back. I breathed in the fresh clean, slightly warm air, ready for the day exploring Sikkim.
With Tibet on the south, and Nepal and Bhutan on the west and east, Sikkim has been described as one of the world’s last utopias by Buddhist guru Padmasambhava. Its laid-back charm, rhododendron and juniper-ensconced valleys, snow-capped mountains, rugged landscapes, a small network of roads, all set in the backdrop of the Himalayan wilderness, certainly make it one.
Famous among Americans, after the fairy-tale love story of the last king of Sikkim, Chogyal Thondup Namgyal and New Yorker Hope Cook, and their marriage in 1963, Sikkim is not your conventional international holiday destination in India. India’s second-smallest state (Goa is first) is now famous for various offerings – off-the-beaten-track treks, for being the first fully organic state due to its sustainable farming practices (which, incidentally, also makes it perfect for detox holidays), and its monasteries – over 200 of them, in fact. The locals I talk to proudly claim their state is beggar-free. Plus it’s rubbish-free – plastic bags are banned here.
We head first to the Rumtek Monastery, one of the wealthiest monasteries here and enshrining a golden stupa (a sacred monument) with relics that belong to the 16th Karmapa, the head of a major lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. Incorporating a school of Tibetan Buddhism and built in 1740, it was rebuilt in 1979 after it fell into disrepair.
The clang of prayer bells greet us, and we see huge carved cylindrical prayer wheels as far as the eye can see down the winding road. It’s a mesmerising, mystical place, cast in silence, and it felt as if we’d travelled many years back in time. Young monks – they couldn’t have been older than eight – weaved around us, smiling.
Inside, we marvelled at the large prayer hall with its giant throne and the rare Buddhist artwork of wall murals, scrolls and silk paintings, as well as the stunning 1,001 miniature golden Buddhas.
We spun the wheels on our way out, a ritual that the Sikkimese believe is as effective as reciting prayers.
We then made a quick stop at the cottage industry and handicrafts centre, where we bought fabrics and bags embellished in traditional Sikkimese motifs. There’s everything from hand-painted masks to little wood dolls, blankets and shawls – a great showcase of local artisans’ skill. Wallets considerably lighter, we stopped at the flower centre nearby, set in a gazebo, where we see every exotic alpine flower in bloom – blue vanda orchids (Sikkim has over 450 varieties of the flower) to liliums, to cite the least.
Back at the hotel, we feasted on one of the best meals I’ve ever had – a traditional Sikkimese one of piping hot thukpa noodle soup, chicken and veg momos, curly ningro (fiddlehead ferns) and spicy chicken curry. Sitting in the open-air Jungle cafe a few metres away from the trees and the hills, birds chirping away, this was a true northeast Indian feast.
I bid goodbye to the beautiful Mayfair in Sikkim with a hot masala tea in the balcony that the staff had very thoughtfully delivered to the room.
The three-hour car journey from Sikkim to Darjeeling is one I’d never forget. As we neared the Queen of the Hills in the night, amid a foggy landscape, trees on slopes rose ahead of us. It was like a beautiful, haunting panorama, almost moving in its magnificence.
Darjeeling, to Sikkim’s south, still has imprints of a colonial past due to its history as a holiday spot during British rule. Draped over a steep mountain ridge and blessed with a pleasant climate and linear rows of bright green bushes that liberally coat this valley, it has been considered the ultimate Indian hill station for decades. Mark Twain, travelling to Darj – as the locals refer to their hometown – in the 1890s, described it as a land that all men would desire to see. That still holds true.
The Mayfair Darjeeling property once belonged to a maharaja, and it reeks of heritage – just like the super fun Toy Train or a bowl of thukpa.
On the way we pass the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway – known as the Toy Train. A Unesco World Heritage site, it's a century old with two-feet wide tracks that run from the highest railway station in India, Ghoom at 2,200m to Darjeeling, travelling 88km. The town is also famous for serving some of the highest-ranking teas internationally, which can’t be duplicated anywhere else, and for being a popular filming destination for Bollywood – think Mr & Mrs Iyer, Barfi!, and Main Hoon Na.
Quaint little houses played peek-a-boo wherever we looked. Then abruptly, the hills rolled past and we were in a busy city with narrow streets. Soon we pulled up to a hotel.
The Mayfair here was once the summer house of the Maharaja of Nazargunj. Set on a hill and overlooking a gorgeous valley, it preserves its heritage charm, but now has a spa, a well stocked library, a gym, a games’ room and a kids’ area.
As I entered my room, I was struck by how cosy it was – a small fireplace in the corner, wood panels everywhere.
The only downside was the lack of a view – while some rooms open up to the mountains, mine disappointingly faced the passage to the hotel.
After our enthralling Kanchenjunga sunrise the next morning, we headed to Batasia Loop. An architectural marvel created by the British to make the sharp fall from Ghoom navigable for the Toy Train, it is also a park and war memorial dedicated to Gurkha soldiers of the Indian army who died in various wars. There’s a local market set up when we visit, with makeshift stalls selling all sorts of curios and souvenirs. Tourists mill about, dressed in local attire for pictures, and put their heads to telescopes for close-up views of the Darjeeling hills, valley and city. The smell of samosas and pakoras wafted by, and we felt our stomachs rumble.
After a scrumptious breakfast filled with Indian specialities and the odd international one back at the Mayfair, we took to the skies, with a cable car ride from town. Started in 1968, this 5km ride, at an elevation of 2,130m, is one of the oldest ropeways in India. We left solid ground with a resounding thud, swinging mid-air and clutching the seats for support, and then slowly zipped across over the hills and tea gardens, the town, and tiny rivulets. If we reached out, we were sure we could touch the clouds, and the snow-capped mountains were just nearby. It’s not for the faint-hearted, but it was mesmerising, unparalleled natural beauty, and one of my favourite bits of the trip.
Darjeeling is a nature haven, and a cable car ride over its vistas reveal acres and acres of rolling tea gardens and national parks with Himalayan wildlife.
Next on the agenda was a trip to Darjeeling Zoo – the largest high-altitude zoo in India. I was fascinated by the magnificence of the wide variety of wild life that is housed in this zoo – black bear, wolf, black panther, the Bengal tiger, and a snow leopard, included – but equally heartbroken to see them in smallish cages.
Tucked within the grounds of the zoo is also the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, established in 1984 by Tenzing Norgay, the sherpa who was the first to successfully climb Mount Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary, back in 1953.
A huge fan of all things Everest, this was a part of the itinerary I was really looking forward to. And for mountaineering enthusiasts and those fascinated by the attempts – and deaths – of adventurers undertaking journeys to the summit, this is a fantastic adventure in itself.
Clothes and gear from Everest expeditions are displayed here – including the ones used on the first ascent like tents, boots and clothing – and there’s even a dead eagle that was brought back from somewhere close to the summit. The magnitude of this endeavour was exhibited throughout, and so was the tragic side – blown-up images of a frozen body found after 75 years in Everest’s white expanse will forever be imprinted in my mind.
No trip here could be complete without a tryst with tea and we had two. Back at the Mayfair, we were invited for a solemn tea tasting ceremony, where we tried about 10 different types of the famous Golden Tips teas, learning the proper way to drink them (you don’t just drink, you swill it around your mouth and draw deep breaths to savour and prolong the pleasure), as well as about the different flushes, or seasons of tea – the first flush is March-April, the second May-June, the monsoon flush July-September and the autumnal one from October-November.
Then, we visited the organic Makaibari Tea Estate. Set among acres of green hills, it is unique as a biodynamic plantation that also runs a homestay programme. We took an aromatic journey through the factory as tea leaves were withered, sorted and dried, to make some of the best teas in the world, with delicious undertones. We left with packets of white, oolong, green and black teas.
On our last evening, we traversed interlocked roads and steep flights of steps to head to the bustling city centre of Chowrasta, where you’ll find everything you’re looking for and is the perfect last stop to stock up on souvenirs, clothes, bags, perfumes, shoes, sweets, and little or massive-sized Buddhas.
As I stood in this wide, open space in the heart of Darjeeling, among some of the nicest, ever-smiling people I’d ever met, I thought back to the mountainous heaven and emerald green hills that I’d seen every single minute of this journey.
Twain was right. Having once glimpsed this paradise, you wouldn’t give it up for anything else in the world.