J OUR­NEYS: THE S P I R I T OF DIS­COV­ERY Dar­jeel­ing is all the Raj

Michael Ge­bicki has a fright­fully spiff­ing time at the time-stalled Win­damere Ho­tel Are you still hav­ing a mon­key prob­lem?’ asks his com­pan­ion with a roar that re­bounds off the walls

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

ECAUSE of a mix-up with my bags at Bag­do­gra air­port, be­cause the Toy Train has de­railed and blocked the road, be­cause it takes us 30 min­utes to drive through the bazaar, when we fi­nally reach Dar­jeel­ing’s Win­damere Ho­tel, it is just in time to catch the tail end of af­ter­noon tea.

I make my way along the corridor to Daisy’s Mu­sic Room, stop­ping briefly to read tes­ti­mo­ni­als from pre­vi­ous guests (in­clud­ing Diana Cooper, Jan Mor­ris and Jawa­har­lal Nehru) and en­ter a room full of peo­ple qui­etly scoff­ing lemon sponge cake and crust­less cu­cum­ber sand­wiches, lit­tle fin­gers crooked as they silently sip tea from dainty cups. The loud­est sound is a tick­ing clock. This is truly re­mark­able.

Dar­jeel­ing sits in the north­ern part of the In­dian state of West Ben­gal. The peo­ple in this room are mostly Ben­galis, for whom re­straint usu­ally is a for­eign virtue. Yet Win­damere, with its flow­ery chintz and par­lour­room airs, has re­duced them all to the sort of em­bar­rassed qui­etude that usu­ally ap­plies among strangers in pro­vin­cial Eng­land.

Sur­vey­ing the town from its flow­ery slopes on the flanks of Ob­ser­va­tory Hill, Win­damere is an ab­so­lute hoot, a world of make-be­lieve where the clock stopped tick­ing circa 1930. It be­gan life as a chum­mery, a board­ing house for sin­gle colo­nial chaps sent out as man­agers on lo­cal tea plan­ta­tions. In the late 1930s it was ac­quired by Ten­duf La, a Sikkimese of Ti­betan ex­trac­tion who turned it into a ho­tel and chose the name Win­damere.

Pre­sid­ing over the ho­tel th­ese days is his son, Sherab Ten­duf La, a man of im­pec­ca­ble man­ners, style and per­fectly mod­u­lated vow­els who could charm the hair off a yak. I first en­counter Ten­duf La in the ho­tel’s restau­rant, where he is din­ing with an el­derly gent. ‘‘ Are you still hav­ing a mon­key prob­lem?’’ asks his com­pan­ion with a roar that re­bounds off the walls.‘‘It’s the same down at the club, you know. You’re smoth­ered in green­ery and you can’t see the devils. Nearly got away with my kedgeree, one did, be­fore the bearer spot­ted him.’’

At the end of my meal, Ten­duf La comes over and we are in­tro­duced. His guest is Teddy Young, a ‘‘ relic of the Raj’’, says Ten­duf La. Young is the last of the Bri­tish planters, a for­mer plan­ta­tion man­ager who stayed on af­ter his em­ploy­ment ended and now finds him­self more at home in In­dia than he could pos­si­bly be in con­tem­po­rary Bri­tain. Ten­duf La packs me off with a whisky and soda to watch

a 1998 doc­u­men­tary in which Young stars. The ho­tel has 37 rooms in sev­eral sep­a­rate lodges, and to fully ap­pre­ci­ate the Win­damere ex­pe­ri­ence, noth­ing but a Her­itage Room will do, com­plete with claw­foot bath and hot-wa­ter bot­tle tucked be­neath the cov­ers when you turn in for the night.

In mine, named Princess of Siam af­ter a for­mer guest, is a Bake­lite dial phone of the cra­dle type in a lurid shade of green, and be­side it a note that sums up the fal­ter­ing steps with which Win­damere stag­gers about in the mod­ern world.

‘‘ Our tele­phone in­ter­com ser­vice was Win­damere’s pride and joy when it was in­stalled in 1950,’’ the note be­gins. ‘‘ It gave re­li­able ser­vice for 20 years and then went wrong. Sev­eral tele­com ex­perts in suc­ces­sion suc­ceeded only in mak­ing patch­work re­pairs. The last ex­pert, 12 years ago, did some se­ri­ous re­pair work, and

Colour­ful con­ver­gence: The Bud­dhist tem­ple on Ob­ser­va­tory Hill

Chum­mery no more: The Win­damere Ho­tel as a con­se­quence, when cer­tain num­bers are di­alled, three phones ring si­mul­ta­ne­ously in sep­a­rate rooms, caus­ing alarm to guests who value their re­pose. We have been keep­ing this de­fi­ciency in our in­ter­com ser­vice un­der re­view, and mean­while, crave your in­dul­gence.’’

Need­less to say, there are no tele­vi­sion sets in the her­itage rooms, al­though they have in­fil­trated An­nan­dale House and Ob­ser­va­tory House, which to­gether make up the Lit­tle Win­damere Wing. As for Wi-Fi in­ter­net, only a fevered imagination would lead you to re­quest such a new-fan­gled ser­vice.

Hap­pily, Win­damere and Dar­jeel­ing are made for one an­other. Spilling down from a high ridge sur­rounded by tea plan­ta­tions at 2100m, Dar­jeel­ing is the most scenic, the sub­tlest and most sat­is­fy­ing of In­dian hill sta­tions. In the morn­ing I am wo­ken by the sound of bells and chant­ing com­ing from the tem­ple that is shared by Hin­dus and Bud­dhists on the hill­top above me.

For en­ter­tain­ment, all I need do is saunter up the nar­row lane to the crown of Ob­ser­va­tory Hill to find a con­ver­gence of peo­ples drawn from the snow-browed val­leys of the Hi­malayas. There are Nepalese, Ti­betans, Bhutias and Lepchas, the for­est peo­ple who were the orig­i­nal in­hab­i­tants of th­ese hills. It is also misty, which only height­ens its mys­tique.

One mo­ment I am adrift in a white sea that blurs the rooftops and the de­o­dar trees just 10m away and then, without warn­ing, the mists slyly creep and turn, a hole ap­pears and shin­ing in the dis­tance is the sum­mit of Kanchen­junga, the Five Trea­sures of Snows, a crest­ing wave of ice and the third high­est peak on the planet. It is thun­der­ous, too. Dar­jeel­ing means Place of the Thun­der­bolt, and earth-shak­ing rum­blings ac­com­pany me as I march back down the hill to my princely break­fast at Win­damere.

Nos­tal­gia is Win­damere’s trump card. Raj afi­ciona­dos will find end­less de­light in the Snug­gery, or li­brary, which is filled with works from the pe­riod, and a sub­stan­tial col­lec­tion de­voted to In­dia’s rail­ways. Ten­duf La em­braces rail­way cul­ture with en­thu­si­asm, and there is no truer Brit than a steam buff.

Pre­vi­ous guests have in­cluded Ed­mund Hil­lary,

Sta­tion of the clouds: A worker picks tea in one of the plan­ta­tions that spill out be­low Dar­jeel­ing Hein­rich Har­rer, prince Peter of Greece and the Queen. In the 1960s, Hope Cooke, a 21-year-old so­cialite from New York, met the crown prince of Sikkim in Win­damere’s bar, and ended up be­com­ing the queen of Sikkim. ‘‘ Vivien Leigh was a stu­dent at the Loreto Con­vent Girls School in Dar­jeel­ing,’’ Ten­duf La says, ‘‘ and when it closed down the nuns gave us a lamp from the dor­mi­tory and pointed out that Vivien Leigh would have walked un­der its beam. It is a very ugly af­fair.

‘‘ We get a con­stant stream of peo­ple who were ei­ther di­rectly as­so­ci­ated with Dar­jeel­ing or with fam­ily con­nec­tions . . . [Play­wright] Tom Stop­pard came, re­trac­ing the foot­steps of his mother. She was the man­ager of the Bata shoe store here dur­ing the war.

‘‘ Don’t be im­pressed,’’ Ten­duf La urges when I con­fess to an ad­mi­ra­tion for Win­damere’s time-warped ways. ‘‘ It hap­pens au­to­mat­i­cally. Peo­ple here don’t like change. I once in­sti­tuted some very big changes at Win­damere, went away for a few months and when I came back I found that every­one was do­ing things ex­actly as be­fore.’’ Michael Ge­bicki was a guest of Aber­crom­bie & Kent.

Check­list

For in­for­ma­tion on pri­vate jour­neys and in­sid­er­ac­cess ex­pe­ri­ences in In­dia, con­tact Aber­crom­bie & Kent, 1300 851 800; www.aber­crom­biekent.com.au; www.win­damere­ho­tel.com. Aber­crom­bie & Kent was voted by

read­ers as best tour op­er­a­tor in our 2008 Travel & Tourism Awards and is a mem­ber of the in­au­gu­ral Kuro­sawa Col­lec­tion.

Pic­tures: Michael Ge­bicki

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