Jul 2, 2019
A new mountain resort in Darjeeling offers an intimate chance to get away from it all, while experiencing West Bengal’s tea-making traditions in style. By Marco Ferrarese. Photographs by Kit Yeng Chan
“We have arrived, sir.” My driver bids me farewell and drops me in front of a gate festooned with fluttering Tibetan prayer flags. To my left, the hill tumbles down and turns into an endless, dark-green labyrinth of prized Darjeeling tea plantations. On the opposite side of the valley, silhouettes of Himalayan mountains loom on the horizon.
“Welcome to Chamong Chiabari,” shout two young and sinewy Bengali bellboys as they come forward to help me with my luggage. Composed of four old-world bungalows, Chamong Chiabari is a new heritage retreat in the remote village of Pokhriabong—one hour from the Darjeeling hill station—offering travelers a full immersion into the legacy of the Chamong Tea Estate, a plantation that dates back to 1871. The hotel’s nine rooms were once the original cottages of the tea planters, and now belong to Chiabari Retreats, whose portfolio also includes heritage bungalow Tumsong Chiabari in Ghoom, another town in the region.
Besides the resort and the tea fields, Chamong Tea Estate’s 332 hectares are still densely forested, making them a paradise for birdwatchers—250 different species soar these skies. But I’m here to experience the prized Darjeeling teas produced in this historical, yet lesser-known, Himalayan estate: from black to green, white and oolong, Chamong’s hand-picked, completely organic Darjeeling teas are famous for their unique floral aroma. Spending the night among these fields seems the perfect way to drink it all in.
Once I’m settled in my spacious and modern Queen suite, GoGo, one of the two bellboys, returns with my first pot of Chamong tea. I follow the wooden floorboards out to my balcony that offers unrestricted views over the tea fields guarded by distant Himalayan giants. I sip the dark orange, bittersweet tea on the balcony as the sun goes down, watching the last tea pickers climb back home through that endless maze of green paths. To my right, I spot the resort’s own Nepali temple dedicated to Shiva high on a crest. Less than a kilometer beyond it, a mountain peak marks the border between India and Nepal.
Chamong’s tea factory is about two kilometers away from the resort. Early the next morning, a chauffeur drives me along a paved road that zooms through ferns, shrubs and tea fields peppered with Nepali pickers, mostly petite, strong-looking women with big baskets hanging from their heads.
The tour starts from the factory’s drying room, where a colonial-era machine is still used to hold and dry the tea leaves before they are mechanically sorted by weight and size. A tall man with a well-groomed, long and curly mustache introduces himself as Mr. Chaudury, the factory manager and also my tea-tasting master. “Each season brings a different quality of tea,” he says. “The strongest comes after the post summer monsoon.”
The tea tasting process is not as simple as I’d expected. Mr. Chaudury chaperones me to a desk strewn with little ceramic cups and gives me the lowdown: Take a sip of freshly infused tea, breathe in heavily and hiss without gulping the liquid down, taste, and then spit it all out into a tall dustbin. Mr. Chaudury makes a sharp whistling sound as he breathes in the tea’s aromas. When it’s my turn, my hiss is embarrassingly off-pitch, but I still feel like I’m able to appreciate the drink’s flavor. Made with leaves plucked from the finest trees in the estate, my practically silver-hued white tea is delicate and lightly bittersweet.
I return to Chamong Chiabari in time for breakfast. Sitting on the lawn beneath my balcony, I refuel from the tasting with a mix of Indian paratha and vegetable curry served next to bacon and eggs—and another pot of Chamong tea, of course. My options for the rest of the day literally lay in front of me: the resort’s new Ayurlaya spa lures guests in with floor-to-ceiling windows that take in the valley views, and a full range of Ayurvedic treatments. Just down a stone staircase are the tea gardens, which Chamong’s guests can explore at their leisure.
But the mid-morning sun is perched high above the mountains, and the valley brims with incredible light, all its bends and nooks coming into full view. For the moment I prefer to sit back, pour myself another cup of tea, and keep taking in all of this beauty. With nobody listening, I have another go at improving my tea-tasting whistle. chamongchiabari.com; doubles from Rp15,000, including meals.
Basking in India’s Tea Gardens
Find your perfect cup in these other historic tea regions.
Temi Tea Garden, Sikkim Opened by the former Chogyal (king) of Sikkim in 1969, Sikkim’s only tea estate produces some of the world’s best tea using a completely organic process. You can stay at the factory or in several local homestays, such as pretty Aansham Kutir (aanshamkutir.com; doubles from Rp1,500), and enjoy paragliding, mountain biking, and night cultural shows with bonfires. Below Tendong Hill, Temi; doubles from Rp4,000, including meals.
Gatoonga Tea Estate, Assam Northeast India has been the cradle of the country’s tea production even before Darjeeling. Gatoonga, near Jorhat town, is one of the main estates in Assam. You can stay at Banyan grove, a heritage cottage with seven classic rooms boasting fireplaces, wooden four-poster beds and checked tiles, all set next to a pleasant swimming pool. 91-943/551-4177; doubles from Rp8,800.
Glenburn Tea Estate, West Bengal This pioneering tea tourism operation in Darjeeling offers eight suites in two colonial bungalows set on the immaculate lawns of a 19th-century mountain tea estate. glenburnteaestate.com; doubles from Rp43,710, including all meals, return transfers and local tours.