The New York Times published an article this past Sunday by Matt Gross (Frugal Traveler columnist), which details his trip to the Darjeeling tea region in India. This is the second article I’ve seen the NYT print this year about visiting the Darjeeling district, and suggests to me that tea tourism is on the rise. Well, about time! As a native Californian, wine tastings and winery tours have long been a part of the local economy, and I’m happy to see some of that tourist love directed to the tea industry!

Why Darjeeling?
Darjeeling teas are considered to be among the finest black teas in the world, prized for their subtle flowering scent and lingering aftertaste. Darjeeling is often referred to as the ‘champagne of teas’, and, as only sparkling wines from the Champagne region in France can be labeled ‘champagne’, only tea grown in the Darjeeling district can be called ‘Darjeeling’. There are 87 tea estates in the Darjeeling district, so if you want to taste a real cup where it was produced, here’s how to get started.

When to go: March to early May is the best time to visit Darjeeling. The first picking of tea, called “first flush” occurs around this time, and the weather is cool and relatively dry.

Visiting Tea Estates in Darjeeling: Below are three estates recommended by NYT, though you can arrange tours at many of the estates once you get to Darjeeling town.

  • Makaibari: This organic, fully biodynamic estate produces the most expensive tea in Darjeeling (about $555/lb.), and offers six no-frills bungalows for travelers. Homestays with Makaibari’s workers can also be arranged.
  • Glenburn: The posh spot for foreign travelers, this estate offers four-poster beds, gourmet breakfast, and at $400/night, a luxurious way to travel in tea country.
  • Goomtee: Moderate accommodations in an old planter’s house, at about $140/night. Take the hike to Muscatel Valley for some jaw-dropping scenery and to visit Goomtee’s organic tea fields. Vegetarian meals.

Other Places to Visit in Darjeeling:

  • Nathmull’s Tea Room: Can’t quite make it to all the tea estates on your list? No worries, you can sample the best teas from the district (except Makaibari’s) at this tea shop and bring your favorites home.

Nathmull’s Tea Room

  • If you’re staying around Darjeeling town, Frommer’s recommends staying at the Delking Hotel, Delking Resort (best value), or the lavish Mayfair Hill Resort.

How To Get There:
Take any of the major airlines to New Delhi, then connect to Bagdogra Airport near Siliguri (50 miles from Darjeeling town) through Air Deccan, Indian Airlines, or Jet Airways. Once in Siliguri, you have two options to get to Darjeeling town:

  1. By train: Take the Darjeeling Himalayan Railroad, aka ‘Toy Train’. This steam-powered narrow guage railway will get you there in about seven hours. Tickets are $6 for first-class, $1 for second-class. Definitely the option for the budget conscious.
  2. By taxi: About a three hour ride, 700 to 1,000 rupees. Current exchange rate is 39 rupees to $1 US, so about $20 to $26. Arrange for a taxi at your hotel or through a tea estate.

Not sure you want to go it alone? Tours are popping up to tea regions around the world. Judy Williams, a tea specialist I met at Boulder’s Rocky Mountain Tea Festival, pointed me to this tour taking place in spring 2008. In addition to tours and tastings at several Darjeeling tea estates, you can also sign on for additional tour leg to taste Ceylon teas in Sri Lanka.

Photo credits: AtomicMak and GrahamKing