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TRAVEL WATCH: SEPTEMBER 13, 1999 VOL. 154 NO. 10

Need to Chill? Head for India's Hill Stations

By RON GLUCKMAN

Heavenly. What better word to describe Darjeeling and Kalimpong, two Himalayan towns with their heads in the clouds? They have long been favored holiday spots: for soldiers of the British Raj seeking rest and relaxation; for Indians fleeing the simmering heat of Delhi and Calcutta; for foreign tourists like Winston Churchill, Rudyard Kipling and Mark Twain, who hoped for a peek at Shangri-La among the peaks at the dreamy juncture of Bhutan, Tibet, Nepal and Sikkim. These cool hill stations still make great getaways, with breathtaking views of the world's highest mountains and lush rolling hills plus Victorian retreats that transport guests back to a grander, more gracious age.

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Straddling a 2,135 m ridge, Darjeeling began life as a key post on the trading route between British India and Tibet. The area was sparsely settled until the British brought tea seeds from China in the early 1800s. A road was punched through the maze of precipitous mountains in the 1830s, and by 1857, it was a teeming high-altitude aerie with more than 10,000 residents. Estates grew, gardens blossomed and orchestras greeted the visitors from Calcutta high society, who spent summers in the hill station.

Darjeeling became known for its tea plantations, and their fragrance still permeates the area. Tea is sold in tiny bags at the street stalls that criss-cross the hills of this storybook town, and from overflowing barrels at the colorful marketplace. Stroll outside Darjeeling and your eyes will be drawn to surreal patterns of greenery, with rows of tea bushes seemingly stapled to the steep slopes. Darjeeling annually produces 11,000 tons of the "Champagne of the East," and you shouldn't leave without visiting a plantation and sipping a cup or two of the famous beverage in one of the many local cafés.

Darjeeling today has a zesty multi-ethnic feel, from the menus that feature Tibetan momos, or dumplings, masalas, mutton curry and kebabs, to the street market along Nehru Road where you can buy Nepalese pouches, Chinese trinkets, Tibetan rugs and Indian silk and spices. Remnants of its colonial heyday remain, like Glenary's, a Victorian-style bakery offering mouth-watering cakes and crumpets and an upstairs dining hall serving full Sunday roasts, meat pies and Christmas cakes.

You can still pop by for afternoon tea with crustless sandwiches at the Windamere Hotel, where kings and queens once drank in the sumptuous garden views onto Mount Kanchenjunga, the snow-capped peak that towers over Darjeeling. The interiors include four-poster beds and rich mahogany paneling. Instead of TV sets, the inn offers overstuffed chairs and daily piano recitals in Daisy's Music Room. It has been run by the same Tibetan family since 1889; its formidable ninety-something proprietor, Phurpha Lhamu Tenduf-La, loves to regale guests with tales of past pomp and intrigue. Double rooms start at $110; for bookings, call 91-354-54041.

The views are just as stunning from the verandah of the old Tea Planter's Club, which was founded in 1868. It has since been renamed the Darjeeling Club, but little else has changed. Morning tea or coffee is served bedside by costumed butlers seemingly as ancient as the lodge. They reappear at night to close shutters and spark fires in hearths that heat the expansive, well-worn suites. While the pool room and library are dust-coated and a bit tatty, the club's past is much in evidence. The better double rooms start at $28, but you must first buy a club membership for $1.50; call 91-354-54349 for more details.

Like Darjeeling, Kalimpong was once part of the kingdom of Bhutan, and brightly attired hilltribespeople still populate the area. Its smaller size and lower elevation (1,250 m) make it less congested than its neighbor and, therefore, a nice spot to unwind. It also offers dazzling views, well-preserved temples, a tasty local cheese (a legacy of Scottish missionaries in the 1800s) and a main street lined with crafts sellers. The century-old Kalimpong Arts Cooperative offers the best products (and prices). The town is also famed for its flowers and stages an annual festival each October to showcase the indigenous orchids and gladiolus.

Flowers and vines also cover the stone walls of the homey Himalayan Hotel, a hillside haven that originally housed David MacDonald, a British officer and author. Grandson Tim MacDonald and his wife Nilam now run the 80-year-old boutique hotel, adding eight apartments to the original home while retaining the opulent English lodge atmosphere. Meals are a delight in the wood- and wicker-lined dining hall, where guests like Richard Gere have whiled away an evening after dinner enjoying the spacious balconies and stunning views. Double rooms cost $62 and can be booked at 91-3552-55248. So aim high--and chill out in India's hill (make that thrill) stations.

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