Today, our ‘My Favourite Hotel’ review is from Darjeeling in India.
We are currently running this reader-written feature to provide some positivity and inspiration to Head for Points. We hope to run one review per day for the next few weeks. There will be a deliberate mix of European and worldwide properties, super luxury and mid market, branded and independent. You can find all of the ‘My Favourite Hotel’ reviews so far by clicking here.
Today’s hotel is the Windamere Hotel in Darjeeling, India . It is reader Joe’s favourite hotel and here is his review:
Where is the Windamere Hotel?
The Windamere Hotel is located high in the hills of Darjeeling, just a stone throw away from this bustling former colonial summer retreat and surrounded by plantations growing tea of the same name. This hotel is a colonial hidden gem that has retained much of the grandeur that once attracted the great and good of Indian high society.
The journey to Darjeeling is a leisurely drive along narrow winding roads that gradually rise higher into the Lesser Himalayas from the nearest major airport in Bagdogra. Make sure you don’t have travel sickness because it can be a bumpy ride along the steep roads.
Darjeeling is more than just an old tea growing town. It has always been the preferred destination for East India Company civil servants and elites looking to escape the unbearable heat and humidity of Calcutta (Kolkata). By Indian standards Darjeeling is small, but there is more than enough to see to occupy a few days in the hilltop town.
When I arrived at the entrance of the hotel and the gatekeeper let me in, the welcome from the smartly dressed staff was quite unexpected. A white Khata (silk scarf used in Tibetan Buddhism) was draped around my neck and a red bindi (dot at the centre of the forehead) was placed on my forehead as I was guided into the central house and offered a cup of freshly brewed Darjeeling tea. The use of both Tibetan and Hindu symbols highlighted the multi-cultural society in the town, at the meeting point of India and Tibet.
The hotel is divided into several buildings, each with their own 19th century character and colonial style. The main building, the Ada Villa built in the 1880s, houses the most impressive suites in the hotel. Each suite is named after a famous guest – the Begum Aga Khan, Prince Peter of Greece and Denmark, Princess of Siam, Chogyal of Sikkim, Alexandra David Neal and Viscount Knebworth. Rooms can also be found in the Forget-me-Not, Tinkerbelle’s Cottage, the self-enclosed Little Pepper’s Cottage and various other buildings.
Silver service breakfast, lunch and dinner were served in the dining room, complete with traditionally dressed waiters, a flickering coal fire, dim lighting and calming background music. The views from the veranda over Darjeeling’s old town and the setting sun over the snow-capped Mount Kangchenjunga were simply spectacular.
After a welcome cup of Darjeeling tea, delivered in a teapot covered in a colourful wool cosy, I was taken to my room on the second floor of the villa. The Chogyal of Sikkim room, like the other suites, included period oak beds with Victorian-style floral sheets, a wooden wardrobe and cabinets, a comfortable sofa and wooden panelled walls.
Historic photos, maps and documents line the white walls and woven rugs line the floor. The stand-out feature of the room was a large oak fireplace complete with a crackling coal fire that coated everything in the room with a subtle smoky scent. In the bathroom, a rolltop bathtub and dressing room added to the historic atmosphere.
The main reason the great and good stayed at the Windamere Hotel was to escape from the stresses of everyday life and there really was no shortage of places to sit and relax. Whether relaxing in the Windamere bar with an alcoholic tipple, or in Daisy’s Music Room with a cup of hot tea as you flick through large albums of photos documenting the history of the hotel and the many parties and social events held, since it opened in the 1880s as a place for tea planters to stay, there was no reason to be bored.
Hidden at the rear of the hotel is a walled garden that seems like a world away from the bustling centre of the town. The gentle ringing of bells from the nearby Buddhist temple echo through the chilly air as you sit on a wooden bench and admire the endemic trees and shrubs in the manicured garden.
Just a short hop away from the walled garden is the DHR Club (Darjeeling Himalayan Railway), a two-roomed bungalow that attracts history enthusiasts from around the world. An extensive library can be found in the Lowell Thomas Reading Room – named after the broadcaster who gave T.E. Lawrence his name and a lifelong friend of the hotel – and in the Heinrich Harrer room – the real Seven Years in Tibet character – you can relax or host a small cocktail party.
Bookings included breakfast and either lunch or dinner. I was taken aback when I first sat down for my first dinner service. I was neither expecting silver service, nor the memorable atmosphere. Dinner included four dishes and drinks, with a menu that changed every day.
The chefs brought together Indian and continental dishes in the menu, and dietary requirements coudld be catered for. On my first night I enjoyed tomato soup, followed by a dish of fish and chips, then chicken curry with rice and roasted vegetables, and a dessert of jam roly poly. Other days included lentil dhal, cheese and onion pie, beef stew and Eton mess.
There were plenty of street food stalls and small cafes and restaurants in Darjeeling, but why go anywhere else when you can have a historic dining experience like this? Every meal came with flickering candles at the centre of the table, white tablecloths, and the soothing scent of coal smoke in the air.
The Windamere Hotel offers an escape back in time to experience colonial life for civil servants and the elites of India. The atmosphere is unique, and the service is friendly and welcoming. The coal fires in each room are a rare experience.
The hotel is independently run, managed by British-Canadian Ms Elizabeth Clarke, who continues to manage the hotel in a way that would be respected by the founder Madame Tenduf-La, the former grand dame of Darjeeling.
Prices are dependent on the season and the type of room you book, but the website has a list of prices for each type of room. You can find out more about the Windamere Hotel here.