Trip Tips: Tea, trains and tales from India's Darjeeling

Trip Tips: Tea, trains and tales from India's Darjeeling

DARJEELING - 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.

DARJEELING

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).

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