A personal travel blog by Ms. Reetwika Banerjee
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This New Year, we planned to visit the hilly terrains of Northern Bengal to treat our eyes with a cloudless glimpse of the majestic Mt. Kanchenjunga range. Since my childhood, I remember my grandma’s description of the mesmerizing views of Mt. Kanchenjunga on a January morning. She had spent her juvenile days at the queen of hills, and so it was through her eyes, I visualized the mountains till the time I experienced it myself.
Kalimpong is a beautiful hill station of North Bengal, situated at an average altitude of 4100 feet, around 80 kilometres (three hours’ drive) from the Bagdogra airport. It was not my first visit to Kalimpong though, but yes the first winter visit for sure.
31st December 2017 – we took an afternoon flight from Kolkata to Bagdogra and landed by 2pm. It’s an Indian Air Force maintained airport and hence photography is strictly prohibited within the premises. It did not take much time to collect our luggage as the airport had only two conveyor belts with very limited civilian passengers.
We hired a pre-paid taxi (Kalimpong drop for Rs. 1400) from the airport counter but soon realized being trapped when the driver loaded our luggage onto a car with different number than the one mentioned in the prepaid booking slip. He tried his level best to convince us that both the cabs belonged to him and it did not make much of a difference whichever we get in. Somehow, we managed to free ourselves from his suspicious clutches and reported straight to the prepaid booth, finally ending up in cancelling our booking at the end. Luckily, we noticed the discrepancy, but it could be damn risky for elderly people to anticipate such hazards.
Time was hitting hard on us as from our previous experiences we knew that after 3pm, no taxis tend to agree driving up the hills. On top, since it was winter time so the risk was mounting up faster. We gave ourselves some time at the adjacent coffee shop when an old gentleman (supposedly a broker) approached us to offer a ride to Kalimpong at the same prepaid booking price. Initially we did not pay much attention, but when he said that the driver was a local resident of Kalimpong and was waiting for a return trip, we agreed to talk to the driver directly. He looked trusted and we geared off without wasting much time. But honestly speaking, where so many foreigners visit round the year, the transport authorities must work towards strengthening the governance, in interest of the tourists.
We continued on NH10 for major part of our journey, crossing a rail bridge near Sevoke. All the while the superfluous turquoise waters of Teesta River were on our right till the time we crossed it near Rambi bazaar. We met a Y-shaped bifurcation near Chitrey Waterfalls where we took a right turn towards the Rishi Road leading to Kalimpong. The road we left headed straight to Melli in Sikkim.
Kalimpong was just twelve kilometres from Chitrey Khola but the remaining road was the toughest part of the route. Here lies the famous two-and-half turn of Rishi Road which was like a series of sharp hairpin bends, ascending steeply over three thousand feet at one go. A chilly wind pierced our skin as we kept climbing up the hill for next thousand feet. We avoided the overcrowded downtown area by taking the Kalimpong Bypass route. Fortunately, the driver knew the roads well and we faced no issues reaching our hotel.
We had done a prior booking at the Kalimpong Park Hotel (Superior Deluxe DBR at Rs. 3900 + applicable taxes) and it took us around two hours forty five minutes to reach there from Bagdogra airport. Ample parking space was available in front of the hotel, no parking hazards at all where today most of the Kalimpong hotels fall short of. Darkness had totally engulfed the place by the time we reached the hill station.
The hotel entrance was beautifully lit and decorated with flowering plants to add a celebration touch. Our check-in was hassle free. We were given a front side room at the third floor. The wood works of the hotel lobby and reception area were noteworthy. However, the room quality and cleanliness must be improved compared to the tariff. No tea coffee kits were provided, wall to wall carpets were not available, no slippers in room, toiletries provided were of very poor quality, bathroom was very clumsy, drinking water was not purified and so on. These are some basic amenities which any boarder would expect from a star hotel.
Keeping aside the hotel amenities, the building has a very attractive fact attached to its existence. It was earlier known as ‘Dinajpur House’ when it was inhabited by the Maharaja of Dinajpur as a summer retreat. It is positioned around a kilometre above the Kalimpong town, facing north-east, with a panoramic view of the landscape from the entrance podium. It still belongs to the Dinajpur royal estate, however some portion of it has been recently renovated and leased out to the luxurious Park Hotel group for tourist accommodation.
I would like to highlight an important point here – location of the hotel is splendid only for tourists who want to avoid the crowded Kalimpong market area, otherwise one might feel very isolated. That also implies that there was not a single shop in and around the hotel within a kilometre’s range. Since we were in an utterly relaxing mood, we loved the seclusion.
It was 31st December night and the prevailing weather was just complementing the calendar dates. The outside temperature was way below ten degrees with a frosty breeze blowing all the while. Being there on the year end night, a small bonfire was arranged by the hotel staff and we were warmly invited to attend it while completing our check-in formalities.
We quickly freshened up as we had midnight plans for the day. The beautiful aroma of hot Darjeeling tea refreshed our weariness in a jiffy. And we decided to take a walk within the hotel premises. The heritage aspect of the hotel was the most attractive part of our stay and it was quite evident from the well maintained trophy room and outhouse turned to bar. There were wonderful antique collections of furniture, utensils, grandpa’s clock, a Victorian wall clock, a magnificent fireplace, stuffed animals etc to add up to our grand experience. From one of the hotel boys we came to know that the building has been often portrayed in old and new Bengali films including some recent releases like Bastu Saap, Chhaya o Chhobi etc.
Bonfire had already started by the time we came back to the reception area. We planned to have our dinner at the adjoining restaurant. Food taste was good and of sufficient quantity but they did not have water purifiers at all. Only option was bottled mineral waters being sold at elevated prices. They serve natural spring waters without being cautioned. People planning to stay with kids, beware.
The receptionist told us that on a cloudless morning, Mt. Kanchenjunga peaks are best visible from its top floor observatory (fourth floor) and the ornate garden adjoining reception area. But we must wake up early to experience that. It would be the first sunrise of the New Year and so we were extremely excited to enthral the first glimpse of the regal snow peaks.
Alarms rang sharp at 4.30am and we rushed to the top floor observatory. It was still dark outside. After an hour’s wait, morning sun’s first glows started appearing and slowly the hilly outlines became visible. Luckily it was a truly cloudless morning. It was right at 6.15am when the Mt. Kanchenjunga main peaks could be seen.
By 6.30am, the entire snow clad Kanchenjunga range was grandly visible on our left while the sun rose from our right. The view of the changing colours on the snow was not just great, but grand. We also went to the garden to experience the view and it was worth the efforts. We came back to our room ordering a pot of steaming Darjeeling tea. Nevertheless, most of the hotel rooms did not face the snow peaks.
11 am and it was time for us to check out. Unfortunately, our end note was not that sweet. The hotel had arranged a private taxi (car with white number plate) for dropping to our onward destination. Upon asking the driver, he said in front of hotel staffs that “in Kalimpong white board cars are allowed to do commercial trips.” Whatever be the fact, take our words, do confirm the rates with the driver before starting your journey from hotel.
We faced serious concerns with the driver booked through hotel reception regarding the trip cost at the end of the day. The amount told to us by hotel receptionist was way less than the driver actually charged us at the dropping point. The overall taxi experience during the entire trip was horrible which reinstates the need of governance by transport authorities in the region. Till the time that happens, at least the hotels must take care of these subtle issues in the long run because when tourists books a taxi through the hotel, they will not expect such discrepancies and impolite driver behaviour.
Whatever be the ups and downs, our winter tour to Kalimpong was a memorable one, heartened by a lifetime stay at the heritage hotel. We thoroughly enjoyed the grand view of the mountains, ultimate solitude, lovely bonfire, tasty food, aromatic Darjeeling tea and the prevailing chilling climate – exactly what we had planned as part our New Year celebrations.