My love affair with the Eastern Himalayas began in my teenage years. I was born and brought up in the exotic Northeastern state of Assam where my father worked in the Department of Agriculture and for some years with the World Bank, monitoring the progress of World Bank-assisted agriculture projects in the virgin North East of India.
Foreign officials of the World Bank often would come on fact-finding missions, which meant traveling to remote areas of the Eastern Himalayas. I was fortunate enough to accompany my dad on numerous occasions to the hitherto unexplored destinations of Northeast India. The region itself is a biodiversity hotspot and it was but natural on the part of the discerning foreign officials of the World Bank to have a particular fascination for wildlife sanctuaries, hill stations and the quintessential tea estates for which the region has carved a niche for itself, what with one of the world’s most famous luxury departmental store like Harrods stocking Indian tea.
Being sensitive to the special needs of our foreign guests, quality accommodation was our topmost priority. I thought the Northeast of India was backward as compared to mainland India and that it would be tough to find luxurious accommodation in this part of the world. However, all my preconceived notions were swept aside by a local Guwahati travel agent who was entrusted with the task of preparing the itineraries and doing the hotel and air reservations for the visiting World Bank officials.
Little did I know that the Eastern Himalayas had the blueprint of the ideal holiday getaway for the discerning world traveler. Some of India’s most outstanding jungle lodges, country manor, Victorian tea garden bungalows and classy heritage hotels that still resonate with the Raj era hangover can be found in this virgin tourist paradise. In many cases, the British have left a legacy, while there are other classy Inns that are a family-run affair.
I can’t resist the temptation of baring it all when it comes to the sheer sense of history and the classical ambiance that prevails even today in some of the most outstanding heritage hotels of the Eastern Himalayas. Each of these heritage properties is unique. Each is secretive and has a story to tell. They are located in picture-perfect locales and even today take pride in that typical boutique experience they offer to guests.
With India on a roller-coaster ride viz-a-viz its well-orchestrated development plan and with increasing attention of the world community on this great country, India’s heritage hotels, most within easy reach from metropolitan India, make them the perfect holiday destinations for today’s discerning world traveler. Here is the poignant commentary.
Windamere Hotel in Darjeeling, West Bengal, India
I had been a guest of the Windamere hotel thrice and each time the experience was unique. Right from the bellboy to the managerial staff, the conduct was exemplary. The ambiance inside the hotel is steeped in history. The architecture is colonial and was built in the 19th century with the primary intention of providing shelter to the erstwhile Tea planters of the British East India Company. Travel Writers from the world over have been charmed by this magnificent heritage hotel and the icing on the cake came in the year 1994 when this marvellous hotel was awarded the “Best Heritage Hotel of India” by the then Prime Minister of India.
The hotel is conspicuous by its two wings: The Windamere and The Little Windamere. I have always preferred “The Windamere Wing” for the accent here is on tradition and gadgets like telephone, fax, e-mail, etc. are prohibited in this wing. There is no television either and it is quite easy for someone staying in this wing to be transported to a make belief world of the “Old Darjeeling” of yore.
Lovelorn couples, particularly those who come for their Honeymoon prefer the romantic “Tinker Bell Cottage” due largely to its secluded location on a highland while “The Little Windamere” is much preferred by the typical urban jet-set traveler.
You can’t help becoming friendly with the diminutive Nepalese bell boys of this distinguished hotel and very likely they will take you on a tour of the hotel’s many heritage attractions like the legendary Mr. Henry Carpenter’s leather boots, the Iron Duke of Windamere, Burra Babu’s typewriter or even the antique piano.
To keep guests entertained, Windamere Hotel organizes evening song and folk dance recitals that are performed by the native artists of Darjeeling. However, the hotel comes alive every year during the Christmas vacations, when carols are sung and renowned artists from the West come to entertain the packed house. Renowned musicians from London’s hip and happening “West End” have been performing at Windamere for the past century.
For the avid train enthusiasts, The Windamere Hotel also houses the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR Club) at the quaint 19th</sup century cottage – “The Snuggery”, believed to be amongst the oldest Raj era edifices of Darjeeling. The century’s old Darjeeling Himalayan Railway has been conferred with the unique status of a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and offers one of the most thrilling mountain rail journeys.
Hotel Norkhill in Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim, India
The magnificent Hotel Norkhill is easily one of Sikkim’s best heritage properties and is conspicuous by its authentic Sikkimese architectural grandeur. This outstanding hotel, formerly a palace was built by the erstwhile King of Sikkim way back in the year 1932. Not much has changed in this palace hotel, which reminds the discerning guests of Sikkim’s rich virile past.
Sikkimese people revere the Dalai Lama as their spiritual master and incidentally, His Holiness had been a guest of this elegant hotel and blessed countless devotees.
I have had the opportunity to stay in countless heritage hotels in the Himalayas but nowhere have I seen such a marvelous ethnic mix of Tibetan motifs, the world-famous Thangka paintings and gorgeous traditional “Bachu” and “Chocsue” that adorn the hotel’s walls.
Each of the hotel’s 32 impeccably appointed rooms is conspicuous by their ethnic design patterns and antique wooden interiors. The best part about this hotel is that every room offers awe-inspiring views of Mount Kanchenjunga, the world’s third highest peak from the luxurious confines of one’s room.
When it comes to fine dining, the hotel’s elegantly done-up “Shangri La” restaurant is one of the best places to savor authentic Tibetan delicacies that have satiated the taste buds of many Western visitors with strong Tibetan connections. I found the ethnically designed “Dragon Bar” to be amongst the most popular watering holes in Gangtok. Apart from a variety of vintage wines, this one-of-its-kind bar has a fine collection of locally produced Sikkimese liquors like “Tongba”.
Denzong Regency in Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim, India
My last trip to Gangtok in the summer of 2008 was an eventful one as I went there to attend a conference on Eco-Tourism and instead of staying at the government-run resort, I was advised by the charming Ms. Pyne, Corporate Communications head of ITC Sonar Bangla Kolkata to be a guest of their much-hyped Gangtok property “Denzong Regency”.
The accent of the hotel’s splendid yet simplistic architecture is its total compliance with local Sikkimese sensitivities and the age-old architectural heritage of Sikkim has been replicated and embellished extensively both inside and outside this magnificent hotel. All the minute details like the antique wooden furnishings, the curtains and the overall ambiance in each room reverberate with a rustic Sikkimese charm.
The unprejudiced eye of the architect echoes in every nook and corner of the hotel. Here at the Denzong Regency, the virtually impossible seem graceful and easy and I think that’s what architecture is all about. The hotel is a supreme adjustment to opportunity and local conditions. All attention has been concentrated on, not collecting art, but on creating art, like one beautiful picture.
This century’s old heritage property is now a part of the renowned ITC WelcomHeritage chain. As a result of the tie-up with ITC, the hotel has recently launched its own exclusive spa, which is much preferred by the hotels discerning guests. What is most impressive about this remarkable hotel is that its vantage location offers fascinating views of the city of Gangtok and on a clear sunny day one can easily see the awesome snow-covered Kanchenjunga peak in all its splendor.
Surrounded by vernacular design patterns, unusual and minimalist, designs that celebrate, which do not necessarily conform to any set pattern, and finishes that are playful – is the joy that this resort breathes into her spaces. Be it the floors, walls, ceilings, doors or even the simple framed windows, the resort manages to evoke in the most mundane things a vibrancy and a happy mood, that reach out to greet you the moment you step inside.