Highlights of West Bengal
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Tea and tigers
India will be having a bit of a moment this year as it celebrates 70 years of independence with the highly anticipated new film Viceroy's House starring Hugh Bonneville and Gillian Anderson hitting cinemas on 3 March. Viceroy's House tells the true story of the last Viceroy of India, Lord Mountbatten tasked with handing India back to its people after 300 years of British rule. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, its sequel and the related reality TV show have also inspired thousands of over 50s to visit India, with the e-visa making the country even more accessible. The classic golden triangle of Delhi, Agra for the Taj Mahal and Jaipur and Rajasthan needs no introduction but having visited India on a number of occasions it was to Darjeeling and Calcutta that I headed to in November last year. Here are a few highlights from my trip.
I'm often asked, where my favourite destination is, it's never so much a destination but more what a destination has to offer. I love mountains, views, clear blues skies, history, raj style interiors, walks and delicious home cooked food, all of which Glenburn Tea Estate has in spades. This heavenly little plantation retreat lies above the banks of the River Rungeet, deep in the Himalaya and is overlooked by the mighty Kanchenjunga (the third highest mountain in the world). Home to generations of tea planters, it remains today a working tea estate. The main house has been lovingly restored with much devotion, care and commitment, whilst retaining the style of a colonial home. Sitting on the flower filled veranda, gazing across the gardens to Kanchenjunga was a special, timeless experience but there was also plenty to do with a tour of the tea estate and dozens of different walks, highly recommended is the one downhill all the way to the river and a sumptuous BBQ picnic. Thankfully, there's a jeep on hand to drive you back. Glenburn is known for its remoteness, be prepared for a particularly bumpy, potholed roller coaster ride for the last 40 minutes of the journey there which will test the resolve of even the most hardy traveller, think of it though as a complimentary massage.
Singalila Ridge trek
The Singalila Ridge forms a natural border between Nepal and India and is the setting for one of the most scenically rewarding trekking holidays in the entire Himalayas. Manebhanjhang, the start of the trek is 26km from Darjeeling and easily accessed by shared jeep. Sandakphu at 3695 metres is the highest point on the ridge and has remarkable sunset and sunrise views of Everest, Makalu, Chamlang and Kangchenjunga. The trek mostly takes place along a high ridge, crossing isolated border settlements, the altitudes are not extreme and the slow-ish pace allows you to interact with the local culture. Each day there's a village to stop at for lunch, mostly noodles or rice and vegetables, simple but filling and delicious and a chance to warm oneself up in the sun. The area is carpeted with a wide range of classic Himalayan flora, including extensive rhododendron bushes which burst into colourful life in the springtime each year. There's also good bird spotting potential and if you're lucky a red panda. The trail undulates up and down but is never too demanding or steep. The walking is relatively easy and some of the days are short, so not one for those looking for a major challenge but for first time trekkers in the Himalayas I couldn't recommend it more.
Calcutta street food
Lion, a film based on the true story of Saroo, a five-year-old boy who fell asleep in an empty train and ended up lost in Calcutta, opened in cinemas earlier in the year and was particularly evocative of the city. Calcutta is as you've probably imagined is busy, noisy, dirty and a complete assault on the senses. It also has a vibrant and tongue tickling good street food scene with the streets around New Market awash with vendors selling typical Bengali snacks. New Market is an enormous raj era enclosed market selling mainly clothes and handicrafts with a neighbouring market selling meat, fish, vegetables and all manner of other foodie items. It’s said you can even get tiger's milk if you pay the right price in Calcutta. Calcutta's best known fast food is the kati roll, spiced meat and vegetables in a paratha wrap, whilst possibly the most ubiquitous street food stands are those selling puchka, a pastry shell (puri) stuffed with a mashed potato mix and then dipped in spicy tamarind water and served in a tiny leaf bowl. Roadside stands piled high with mountains of upside down puris covered in plastic are everywhere and although the quality of the water maybe dubious, the salty mashed potatoes mingled with the watery crunch is hard to resist. Bengali's fry everything under the sun, so also be prepared for plenty of deep fried treats.
The Rajbari Bawali
India has no shortage of luxurious and iconic hotels - The Lake Palace, Udaipur, Taj Bombay and Wildflower lodge, Shimla instantly spring to mind but in West Bengal and Darjeeling there are some equally spoiling and special historic hotels. The Rajbari in the small village of Bawali, just south of Calcutta is the new kid on the block, a glorious neo-classical palace sitting by a lake surrounded by farmland. When the current owner first spied the Rajbari he was immediately smitten and vowed to bring it back from the beautifully elegant but sadly crumbling ruin that it had become. Replete with collapsing ceilings, trees growing through it, and the outside encroaching inwards from all corners, it was a monumental task but one that he has miraculously achieved and with stunning results. Outside is all turrets and columns, ornate courtyards, and balconies overlooking the lake, fields and fascinating temples unique to this region. When lit up at night it is truly spectacular.
Sunderbans Tiger Reserve
West Bengal offers a remarkable range of experiences, none more so than a visit to the Sunderbans National Park - a world heritage site, tiger reserve and biosphere reserve, basically a huge delta with an awful lot of mangrove trees. It couldn't have contrasted more with the mighty Himalayan mountains but made for a fascinating end to my trip with another unique place to stay. Sprawling across 11.5 acres, The Sunderbans Tiger Camp overlooks the Sajnekhali Wildlife Sanctuary and is on the banks of Pitchkhali River on Dayapur Island. Like Glenburn, it too was extremely remote (3 hours by car and then another 2 hours by boat from Calcutta) but also like Glenburn well worth the journey. Accommodation is rustic but still with all the amenities you need and I loved the fact that the interior of my little hut had been hand painted by a local artist with colourful kingfishers. The latter were easily spotted throughout the reserve, tigers however proved far more elusive!
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