500km (310 miles) N of Kolkata
Darjeeling, "Land of the Celestial Thunderbolt," was given to the British as a "gift" from the once-independent kingdom of Sikkim. Lying in the Himalayan foothills and entirely surrounded by snowcapped vistas, Darjeeling soon became the favorite summer resort of the British Raj during the heyday of Calcutta -- when Mark Twain visited, he exclaimed it was "the one land that all men desire to see, and having seen once by even a glimpse would not give that glimpse for the shows of the rest of the world combined." Today, the incredible view of the world's third-highest mountain, Mount Kanchenjunga (8,220m/27,400 ft.), is undoubtedly Darjeeling's best-loved attraction, though the town has also acquired a global reputation for producing the "champagne of teas," and retains some of its haunting Gothic Victorian ambience. Most visitors are here to pick up a permit and get acclimatized for hikes through the mountainous state of Sikkim. It's worth noting that if you want a sleepy colonial hill-station environment, with splendid flower-filled walks, this is not it. Head instead for nearby Kalimpong, which offers a number of charming old-world accommodations.
Two nights in Darjeeling should be more than enough, particularly if you're moving on to other Himalayan foothill towns. As with most hill stations, Darjeeling involves a considerable amount of climbing, and you'll do well to avoid the ugly mess of lower Darjeeling, which is typically congested, with suspicious odors, confusing back alleys, and a jumble of paths and stairways. Stick to The Mall and Chowrasta (crossroads) in upper Darjeeling, where life proceeds at a polite pace, and you can enjoy leisurely walks, stopping for a cup of tea or to browse shops stuffed full of trinkets and artifacts.
Note: There has been a fair amount of political turmoil off late with the Nepali residents clamoring for Darjeeling to become a separate state called Gorkhaland; quite unfortunately and with little foresight, the politics has directly affected tourists so it is advisable to find out what the mood is like prior to making bookings. The travel agents and operators recommended in this book can advise you; alternatively check with your embassy or state tourism department.