Jorebungalow is a sleepy hamlet nine miles from Darjeeling in the northern part of West Bengal. From its alpine height of 8,000 feet, it is a bumpy drive downhill through lush green tea plantations all the way to a slightly warmer elevation of 3,200 feet where, perched on a ridge amid the rolling emerald slopes is Glenburn Tea Bungalow.
Glenburn’s history dates back to 1859 when a Scottish tea planter started the estate. It changed hands a few times and in 2001 finally passed into the ownership of one of India’s pioneering tea planting families: the Prakashes. Taking a cue from Europe’s vineyard tourism, the chaiwalla family (meaning tea makers) decided to provide an authentic ‘tea estate’ experience to the discerning traveler in Glenburn, a member of RARE India, which is a community of the finest boutique, ‘conscious luxury’ hotels.
The Burra Bungalow, built in the early years of the 20th century, was the tea planter’s residence for almost a century. It was meticulously restored and converted into a boutique hotel carefully retaining the colonial elements. A few years later, the Water Lily Bungalow came up on the hill in front of the old bungalow.
The eight suites of the two bungalows are draped in elegant, lived-in luxury, replete with four-poster beds made of antique Spanish mahogany, mirrored dressers, and dainty corner pieces. Having leisurely sips of finest Darjeeling tea, freshly harvested from the Glenburn tea estate, snuggled up with a book in a couch at the ensuite parlor was my usual afternoon activity during my three-day stay in this plantation retreat. All the sit-out parlors of the suites overlook the verdant Simbong valley and the expansive front verandah, marbled and checkered, leads on to a neatly manicured lawn hemmed in with blossoms of nasturtium, pansies, petunias, and geraniums.
The rippling sea of green that extends beyond stretches to the point where the long, corrugated mountain ridges blend into the horizon. On a clear morning, when drifting clouds from the valley below do not have their wispy clasp over the mountains, the staggering expanse of Mt. Kanchenjunga, the third highest peak in the world shows in all its glory.
Glenburn feels like a time-warp, cocooned in a world of its own with 240 hectares of plantation and 400 hectares of private forest. The two rivers Rungeet and Rung Dung bubble their way through the estate. The day starts with the morning cuppa of Moonshine – Glenburn estate’s specialty tea, produced from select tea bushes in very small batches in the first few days of spring. The almost transparent liquid has a slight tint of yellow and its flowery bouquet coupled with a delicate finish with hints of peach makes it one of the most expensive teas in Darjeeling.
Breakfast takes place under a pomelo tree and lunch on the checkered marble verandah. A late afternoon round of second flush tea brewed to a tawny golden and paired with freshly baked scones is followed by cocktails in the cozy drawing room with house guests, where everyone goes for the glass of martini infused with Moonshine tea. Dinner is announced sharply at eight and as the bearers serve each course (Mughlai, Burmese or tea-themed), Bertie Amritanand, the affable estate host, entertains the guests with anecdotes from his tea planting years (he has been a planter for almost fifty years in plantations of Assam, Darjeeling and East Africa).
In between these indulgences, there are activities aplenty. One of the highlights of the Glenburn experience is the 6-km hike (or a bone-jarring drive, if you prefer it that way) down to a campsite where the gushing waters of river Rungeet marks the boundary of Glenburn estate. The trek is through the fragrant tea plantations and if the visit is the harvest season it is a fascinating sight. Women tea pluckers, sporting headscarves or colorful umbrellas roam the hillside, nimbly pick two leaves and a bud and toss them into the wicker baskets on their backs. A lavish picnic lunch awaits you at the campsite and a plunge into the river (in the drier winter months) is a delightful possibility.
For an avid birder and naturalist, the avian fleet of barbets, woodpeckers, munias, crested kingfishers and tropical butterflies pose endless opportunities to photograph them. For those seeking to blend urban delights into the tea estate flavors, the hill town of Darjeeling is 1.5 hours away. Its throbbing town square, rooftop restaurants and a ride on the proverbial toy train of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railways, operating since 1880s and now accorded a UNESCO World Heritage status, can make a fun-filled day trip.
During my stay, I equally enjoyed a trip to the Glenburn tea factory where tea leaves are withered and rolled, then fermented to a coppery red and dried to a dusty black before getting sorted and packaged. The sensory experience culminates in the tea tasting room where, attired in a white apron, you take a large spoonful of tea from a bowl, slurp it up noisily, swirl it into your mouth to ensure that both the tea and plenty of oxygen is passed over all the taste buds to give an equitable taste profile of the tea. And then spit out the liquid into a receptacle (this final stage is important to play your part like a pro tea taster) before moving onto the next sample to taste.
And amid all these activities, my favorite evening corner was the reclining settee by the 9-feet high bay window in the patio adjacent to our Planter’s Suite. To watch darkness gently descending upon the valley and to savor the golden silence with a cuppa of finest Darjeeling tea.