An Interest in
It doesn’t matter how much you read about tea, taste it, or study it, it is only by visiting the estates where the tea is made that the cultivation and manufacturing begins to make sense and the real passion develops. Jane Pettigrew takes us through a few estates that are open to tea enthusiasts in Darjeeling, Nilgiri and Sri Lanka.
Tea estate managers
in India’s Darjeeling and Nilgiri teas regions and in Sri Lanka’s central southern tea districts are used to fascinate visitors who arrive eager to learn the secrets of tea manufacture. On several plantations, spare bungalows have been converted to provide comfortable accommodations and it is possible to combine an interest in tea with all sorts of fun holiday activities and relaxation. Here are details of just a few of the options.
In the Foothills of the Himalayas
The journey from Bagdogra Airport up to Darjeeling begins along flat roads that run through endless fields of green tea bushes. Gradually, the gradient becomes steeper, the winding road narrower and the bends more tightly angled until, eventually, you reach the upper slopes where many of the big plantations offer bungalow accommodation to overnight guests. This is one of the most heavenly locations on earth, where tea bushes scramble in all directions up steep slopes that are punctuated by tracts of wild jungle and gushing waterfalls, where gently swirling white clouds offer welcome shade against strong daytime sunlight, where evenings are comfortably cool and the night sky is sprinkled with the stars that we never notice in city centers.
The first stop, half way between Bagdogra and Darjeeling, must be at Goomtee Estate where Ashok Kumar regularly welcomes tea enthusiasts from Japan, Germany, the UK, the U.S. and elsewhere. A steep slope lined with tall conifers leads up to the front door, which opens into a long, airy, conservatory-style room. Here, rattan chairs and tables provide the perfect resting place to ponder the view, learn about the area and drink some of its tea, or dip into Ashok’s thoughtfully collected library of books. The tea factory is situated just below the house and here you can watch the freshly plucked leaves being processed, taste the black and oolong teas that Goomtee makes, then walk the paths that run through the estate’s 500 acres and enjoy the utter peace and quiet of the hills. In the evenings, work off any surplus energy with a game of ping pong or sit and discuss tea, history, philosophy and religion with fellow guests and, if they are there at the time, with Ashok and his family.
It’s very easy to arrange transportation from one estate to another in Darjeeling and the plantation managers all know and talk to each other and are used to organizing jeeps to collect and deliver visitors. So, from Goomtee, take a trip to Tumsong Tea Estate, which dates back to the 1860s and lies at 6,000 feet among the Darjeeling hills. The bungalow has four luxury double rooms and offers guests stylish and comfortable accommodations with antique furniture, airy elegant rooms filled with fresh flowers cut from the gardens that surround the houses, excellent cuisine and all sorts of activities. There are hiking tours of the tea gardens, factory tours and tea tastings of the organic black, green, white and oolong teas made here, riverside camping and day excursions to the local village and to Darjeeling (which is a fascinating town packed full of market stalls, restaurants, antique dealers and jewelry stores). Chamong Resorts are also converting bungalows at Pussimbing, Lingia, Marybong and Chamong estates making them ready to offer more accommodation to visitors in the near future. Dating back to 1860, Glenburn Tea Estate bungalow also offers accommodation in the midst of its 1,600 acres of tea. The garden’s slopes plunge down from altitudes of 3,700 feet to the rivers that flow along the valley floor below. Its upper peaks offer visitors stunning views of the Kanchenjunga mountain range, forests to hike through, access across a hanging bridge to the ancient kingdom of Sikkim, river rafting, camping, picnics, barbeques and visits to the tea fields and factory.
Tumsong Tea Estate bungalow among the Darjeeling Hills.
The Blue Mountains of Southern India
If it’s India’s southern tea region of Nilgiri that tempts you, book into the Adderley Guest House close to Coonoor and 27 miles from the hill station of “Ooty.” The landscape here is quite different from the steep, rugged mountains of Darjeeling. The weather here is temperate — chilly in mid-winter but with temperatures between 59° and 68°C during the rest of the year. The charming five-bedroom planter’s bungalow at Adderley is 135 years old and, as at similar guest houses set in the midst of tea bushes, you can either relax and rest or hike, walk, explore, climb hills, go fishing, watch the local bird life, visit local towns and improve your tea knowledge.
The Glendale Tea Estate of the Nilgiri Hills is located at an altitude of 5,000 to 6,600 feet above sea level. According to Uday Kumar of the estate, “Our plantation has well furnished bungalows to accommodate the visitors. They will be taken around the tea plantation, the tea processing facility, and will experience our tea tasting technology, tea auction, a ride on the mountain railway, a visit to the forest area to see animals, etc.” Kumar continues, “Most of the tea drinkers are not aware of how the tea is processed and how the tea leaf is carefully collected from the plant and processed with meticulous care.”
The beautiful Nilgiri Hills.
Another excellent place to stay in this region is the 125-year-old, nine-bedroom Red Hill Nature Resort, which sits at the heart of a tea plantation at 7,200 feet in the upper Nilgiri plateau, overlooking the spectacular blue waters of Emerald Lake. The house at Red Hill offers all the comforts of a planter’s home — open fire places for those chillier evenings at such high altitudes, excellent food prepared with local, organically grown ingredients, barbeques, a nearby golf course, ayurvedic herbal treatments and massage and sightseeing safaris into the local forests. The journey here from Coimbatore Airport is a drive of some 110 kms or 27 kms by train from Ooty.
The Tea Hills of Sri Lanka
Despite the ongoing troubles between Tamils and Singhalese, the tea regions of Sri Lanka are totally safe and extremely peaceful. So, if you are visiting the island, spend a few days at Handunugoda Tea Estate in the low growing Ruhuna district in the Sri Lankan “Deep South.” Of special interest here is the virgin white tea that has an amazing quality and character very similar to the best China Yin Zhen (Silver Needles). The tea estate does not have its own accommodation but the Guneratne family who owns it, also own a cinnamon garden where visitors can stay. There are three properties to choose from — Mirissa Hills, a beautifully restored estate house or “walauwa” on the lower slopes and 40 minutes from the tea plantation; at the top of the hill is Mount Cinnamon, a luxurious contemporary house that enjoys 360° views out over Weligama Bay and the surrounding hills, and is also about 40 minutes from Handunugoda; and, opening directly onto a cove with its own golden beach on the south coast a few miles from the ancient city of Galle, South Point Villas offers accommodation in three separate houses (South Point Villa, South Point Abbey and South Point Cottage) that are only 15 minutes from the tea estate. The clear warm seawater here laps gently around coral reefs and is perfect for swimming and snorkelling, and the house provides total privacy and tranquillity.
If you have time to travel up into Sri Lanka’s hill country, choose one of Dilmah’s Tea Trails bungalows in the Bogawantalawa Valley at 4,000 feet above sea level. The four classic colonial planter’s bungalows have been refurbished and modernized to an extremely high standard and create idyllic holiday homes surrounded on all sides by the island’s sweeping tea slopes. Here you will find cascading waterfalls, gently winding roads, neatly mown lawns, bamboo stands, tennis courts, white water rafting, kayaking, boating on the lake, golf, biking, swimming pools and visits to the tea factories. When you’re not adventuring, the thoughtful bungalow staff will serve you the most delicious breakfasts, lunches, afternoon teas and dinners (with superb wines) and no effort is spared to ensure totally luxurious comfort during your stay here.
Tea & Coffee - October, 2008
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