It’s not hard to understand why the British chose Darjeeling as the site of an army sanatorium back in the early 19th century. Dense oak and sal forest cloak the high, undulating ridge on which the hill station was founded, at a refreshing altitude of 2,200m. For much of the year, the skies remain blue and air blissfully cool. Whole hillsides of lush tea gardens cloak the surrounding slopes – man-made additions to a view of breathtaking beauty. Looking north, countless green ridges ripple to the shining white vision on the far horizon of Kanchenjunga (8,586m/28,169ft), the world’s third highest mountain.
Darjeeling’s temperate climate continues to be the source of its prosperity, derived in equal measure from tea and tourism. Visitors pour in through the hot season to watch the pluckers at work amid the manicured terraces, to marvel at the rhododendron flowers and orchids at the Botanical Gardens, and enjoy the old-world atmosphere of the town itself, with its mock-Tudor bungalows and Gothic churches. Play a frame of billiards at the famous Gymkhana Club, and tuck into a supper of roast beef and rolly polly pudding at the Windemere Hotel, served by uniformed maids in white gloves.
The perfect preamble to any visit to Darjeeling is the journey up from the plains on the 19th century Toy Train. Steam locomotives still haul some of the services, which affords wonderful views as the line loops up to its terminus. The very finest panorama in this area, however – if not in the entire Himalayas – is the one at dawn from Tiger Hill, a prominent peak 7 miles west of Darjeeling town, from where a vast sweep of ice peaks is sails above its mantle of mist and cloud, stretching from Everest and Lhotse in the west to the fluted pyramid of Siniolchu in the east.