This May I will be lucky enough to visit the great Darjeeling! It will be my first time and I am so unbelievably excited. I'll be traveling with a fellow tea friend to witness the 2nd Flush in action.
My goals for the trip are to:
- Learn first-hand how Darjeeling tea is made
- Taste and bring back authentic, garden-fresh teas
- Experience life at the tea gardens
...and of course, soak in the beautiful mountain landscapes!
Photo of Darjeeling town above the clouds by Enchanting Travels
For the 5 days we're there, we'll be staying on the actual tea farms to fully immerse ourselves.
For the first 3 days we will participate in a home-stay program at the famous Makaibari Tea Estate, meaning we'll get the incredible opportunity to live in the home of a family who works on the estate (more below!). For the last 2 days, we will shift gears and pamper ourselves a little at the Singtom Tea Resort, where historical bungalows of former British tea planters have been converted into beautiful guest rooms.
So how about the teas we will be tasting and bringing back?
Prospects for 2018 Harvest
I'll be bringing back 1st and 2nd flush teas from the 2018 harvest. For information about the different kinds of Darjeeling teas, check out my previous blog post!
Just like wine, the year a tea is harvested is very important for quality. Some years are better than others, depending on weather conditions (temperature, precipitation, wind, sunshine etc), manpower, and various other factors.
So what's in store for Darjeeling 2018?
Photo of a Tea Cupping by Singtom Tea Estate
After an unexpected 100 day rest period for the tea bushes last year (due to a political strike that left Darjeeling in a standstill from June to September 2017), Darjeeling is back in full swing. The strike undoubtedly had a devastating impact on the region: All 87 tea plantations were forced to close during vital Monsoon and Autumn flushes.
One tiny silver lining, however, is that the tea plants were able to rest during peak harvest season for the first time in 100 years. As a result, many are very hopeful for the 2018 harvest. Some plantations even had fresh leaves flushing in late December, supporting this theory.
“Because the bushes were overgrown and had to undergo deep pruning last year, the yield next season starting in March may initially be a little thin. But April onwards, the bushes will start to flush fully and I am expecting the crop next year to be of very good quality.” - Krishan Katyal, Darjeeling tea estate expert, about 2018 harvest.
Additionally, the Darjeeling hills benefited from favourable weather conditions this winter - low temperatures and sunshine. All in all, I'm very optimistic about the 2018 2nd Flush teas we'll be tasting. And I'm also humbled to be in Darjeeling after such a historical event.
Now let's talk about the movement that makes it possible for the average tourist (like you and me) to stay at a tea estate and taste these wonderful teas.
Photo of Glenburn Tea Estate & Boutique Hotel with view of Mt. Kanchenjunga by Subhasish Chakraborty
Tea Tourism, pioneered by Darjeeling, is a relatively new concept to the world. Similar to the popular Wine tasting tours in Napa Valley, tea estates have slowly been opening their doors to the curious traveler. With so much to offer, it really is a win-win: Tourists get to learn about and taste authentic teas, while enjoying the peaceful mountains; And tea estates get to spread their knowledge to the rest of the world, while gaining a secondary source of income and cultural exchange.
So what would staying at a Darjeeling tea estate be like?
Imagine spending a few days in a sprawling tea garden, high on the misty hilltops... You're staying in a bungalow that was once the residence of a British tea planter during colonial times, restored in its original style to make you feel like you've been transported back in time.
You wake up and take a sip of the most wonderful garden-fresh tea, and enjoy a breakfast made of local organic produce. You take a stroll through the gardens to see how tea pickers deftly pluck two leaves and a bud, and admire the breathtaking mountain views. Afterwards, you're invited to learn about tea processing at the factory where some of the best teas in the world are withered, rolled, dried, sorted and packaged. Lastly, you walk through the villages and nature trails for a deeper insight into the lives of the people living there.
Photo of a Tea Tasting by Makaibari Tea Estate
For anyone who enjoys a good cuppa (and the mountains), it doesn't get better than this!
This experience was first made possible for tourists by the Glenburn Tea Estate back in 2002. Since then, several Darjeeling estates have followed suit and there are currently a handful of great accommodation options (comprehensive list here). Stays range from US$100 to US$500 per night, with some estates offering all-inclusive packages.
We decided to go with the Singtom Tea Resort (at US$100 per night) for 2 nights, to get a glimpse of the luxurious tea experience at an affordable rate. And, because I love cultural exchanges, we'll also be spending 3 nights in a home-stay at the Makaibari Tea Estate. Read on for info about both accommodations!
Photo by Sanjit Das/Bloomberg
Located in Kurseong, with an area of 750 hectares and average altitude of 4,500ft, Makaibari is one of the oldest and the most talked about tea estates in Darjeeling. The estate was founded back in 1859 by the Banerjee family, which still has partial ownership.
Rajah Banerjee - the last family owner, and a very well respected figure in the community - was the first person in Darjeeling to introduce organic farming! The Makaibari tea estate was also the first in the world to be 'Fair Trade' certified, and the first to appoint women in a supervisory position.
Although Banarjee has taken a backseat now, he is still sometimes seen around the estate. Hopefully we'll be able to catch him during our stay. That would be incredible!
"This is my dreaming land. The passion for tea is to make the specific personality for Makaibari reflected in a cup anywhere you drink it in the world. Darjeeling tea is not an industry. It's a handicraft, a very specialized art." - Rajah Banerjee about his tea estate
Photo of Rajah Banerjee by Tanveer Badal
As you can see, the estate is rooted in strong core values, and has been led with passion and innovation. It comes to no surprise then, that this is also the first and only estate to offer homestays with the local families of the tea gardens!
But how did this program come about? In 2005, villagers and tea garden workers of Makaibari decided to offer part of their own homes to accommodate visitors, in order to satisfy the growing demand for tea tourism and provide an alternative source of income. Actively supported by the Makaibari Tea Estate management, this program is (and has always been) a grassroots initiative. It is organized by a local body known as Volunteer in Makaibari, comprising of volunteers from the Makaibari youth community, and profits go directly to the families.
As a result, there are now over 20 families who have renovated their homes to offer homestay accommodation to tourists. Though basic, the rooms are clean and comfortable, with Western toilets. Hot water and home cooked meals (think Nepalese momos!) are also provided.
"It was a life experience being at Makaibari for 9 days, this place has some kind of magic. I feel really grateful for this opportunity to enjoy peaceful life with the most beautiful people and learn so much about Darjeeling organic tea." - Guest review from February 2018.
My friend and I have arranged to stay in a home-stay for 3 nights. I am so excited to meet the family and be welcomed into their home. While I am of course looking forward to our guided tea tour and tasting (booked for day 2), I am equally looking forward to the laughs and unforgettable evenings we will share with our Makaibari homestay family. :)
Photo of a Makaibari homestay on www.booking.com
Singtom Tea Resort
Here's where we switch gears for the 2nd half of our trip: 2 nights at the Singtom Tea Resort!
Arguably the first Darjeeling tea estate to truly offer a luxury tea garden experience in the 100 dollar range, Singtom Tea Resort makes it now possible for mid-range travelers to be a part of the tea experience. And, while it may carry a lower price tag, it certainly does not fall short on grandeur!
Photo of Singtom Tea Resort with view of Mt. Kanchenjunga on www.booking.com
To start with, Singtom is home to the very first tea garden planted in Darjeeling! Therefore, the resort offers a unique lens into the origins of Darjeeling tea, dating back to 1852 during the British colonial era. As a guest of the Singtom resort, you have exclusive access to the historical tea bushes that have survived over 150 years, and signify the beginning of Darjeeling tea!
Secondly, this tea resort is the queen of views: It is the only one to offer views of both Mt. Kanchenjunga and Darjeeling town. There is a view point here, called the 360 degree view point, where you can see the majestic Kanchenjunga snow peaks on one side, and the glowing Darjeeling township on the other... A view I am thoroughly looking forward to! Apparently, the resort can even arrange for your breakfast or lunch here under an umbrella.
Thirdly, Singtom Resort is the closest tea estate to offer accomodation, taking only 25 minutes to reach Darjeeling town. The best of both worlds, Singtom provides a quiet retreat into the tea mountains, while conveniently still being a short drive away from the town.
Photo of a Singtom Resort suite on www.booking.com
Paying tribute to the history of the tea estate, Singtom has maintained the colonial style of the bungalows, which were once where resident tea planters lived, and staying there as a guest offers a uniquely nostalgic experience.
While we're there we will take a tour of the tea gardens, as well as a factory tour and professional tasting. Other activities available to guests include: Visiting the 360 degree view point, playing outdoor badminton, and hiking to the nearby waterfalls!
May 1 - International Flight to Calcutta (via Kuala Lumpur)
May 2 - Local Flight from Calcutta to Bagdogra, and then 1.5 hours ride to Makaibari Tea Estate where we will stay for 3 nights. Arrive around 6pm - Welcomed into homestay.
May 3 & 4 - Makaibari Guided Tea Tour & Tasting. Enjoy the surrounding area: Nature trails, walking through villages, bird watching, view points, temples, lakes, etc. Evening local cultural dance show.
May 5 & 6 - Toy Train to Darjeeling and then on to Singtom Tea Resort, where we will stay for 2 nights. Check-in to room. Singtom Tea Tour & Tasting. Other outdoor activities: 360 Viewpoint, hike to waterfall, badminton etc.
May 7 - Fly out from Bagdogra
So that's what I have in store for my upcoming Darjeeling 2018 trip. Message me if you want to try some of the teas I'll be bringing back!
Some questions I have for you:
Does the idea of staying in a tea garden and the "tea tourist" experience appeal to you? Why or why not?
Have any of you been to Darjeeling before, and if so how was your experience?
Would love to hear from you below!