Once a part of Sikkim, a certain Lama made his way to a hill where he created his shrine and pronounced that this hill had divine energies and powers. Darjeeling is the anglicized name for the Tibetan words ‘Dorge’ meaning ‘thunderbolt’ & ‘Ling’ meaning land. This was actually the name of the lama. Therefore, Darjeeling is popularly known as the ‘Land of the Thunderbolt’. During the British Raj, the British sought refuge from the humid climate of the plains and chose to repose in the chilly weather of Darjeeling. Many soldiers and officers of various ranks, as well as British gentry, and aristocrats would make a pit stop at Darjeeling if they were in Kolkata. The British left an indelible mark in Darjeeling such as growing tea, constructing clubs, churches, the toy train, colonial homes and other buildings which still exist.
While in Darjeeling, taking a heritage walk to see these beautiful structures should be on top of your to-do list. During the winters the hill station is enclosed in swirls of mist & snow. If one makes their way up Observatory Hill (the very hill on which the lama’s shrine was built) to the Windarmere Hotel, a boarding house for British tea-planters; looking at the elegant colonial structure, there’s a moment’s hesitation, even confusion; puzzling over whether one is actually in India or in England since the landscape and structures looks alarmingly similar. The confusion evaporates, and one makes their way through neatly manicured lawns to the lobby. The courteous and amiable staff greets you enthusiastically. Elizabeth Clarke is the Executive Director of the Windamere Hotel. In 1939, this property was bought from the owner who was British and renamed , the Windamere Hotel with a change in spelling (one of the new owners was from the Lake District in England). A quick tour around the quaint hotel reveals why innumerable patrons from around the world choose to regularly make their way here for Christmas and New Year every year. The hotel consists of a series of various residences which include suites, cottages, conference centre, wellness room, gift shop, their globally renowned club called the ‘DHR Club’, and a library; all of which have charming names and an equally charming, yet debonair countenance.
Let’s go through some of these rooms in detail! The Ada Villa consists of six colonial suites, each is named after famous personalities who have graced these rooms. The Knebworth is named after Lord Cobbold’s mansion in England. His father was a Viceroy of India and was known as the Viscount Knebworth; Prince Peter of Greece and Denmark who stayed in this room; Chogyal of Sikkim who is the King of Sikkim and was introduced to his second wife in this room; Princess of Siam or what is now known as Thailand, the princess lived here; Begum Aga Khan, & Alexandra David Neal who dressed as a monk to enter Tibet and is still honoured in her home country France. The bar has been serving drinks since 1939. Rooms in the DHR Club are named after Heinrich Harrer, the author of ‘Seven Years in Tibet’ who recounts his experiences in Tibet, & Lowell Thomas an author, traveler and broadcaster who discovered the famous ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. The décor of each room is an eclectic mix of Colonial, Tibetan & Indian influences. From Kashmiri carpets, Tibetan and Indian rugs, gleaming wooden floors, wooden furniture, roaring fireplaces, Victorian bathrooms to other amenities, not to mention jaw-dropping views of the snow-capped mountains, especially Mount K2, create an unforgettable experience.
Having won accolades over the decades (the most recent being from Safari India for the best heritage hotel 2014), the Windamere still continues to staunchly maintain its extremely high standards. There are packages for Christmas and New Year’s which are electrifying! Most of the package details are mentioned, but some of the activities are kept as a surprise for all the patrons, which definitely adds a certain suspense to the already eager guests. All meals are included right from breakfast, to tea and dinner. A scrumptious array of Indian, English and Continental dishes are served. Dinner and lunch consist of 5-course meals. Christmas and New Year is celebrated with great vigour, and includes traditional British customs. A classic British Christmas Dinner consists of Turkey, Yorkshire Puddings, desserts & roasts. The food here has received rave reviews. There are cultural programmes such as the famous ‘Songs and Dances of the Hills’, and carol singing with local carol groups. Professional acts from across the world come here to enthrall guests with highly entertaining performances. Some of the professional acts include; Andromeda Turre, a star from Broadway; Jacqui Dankworth, daughter of Lady Cleo Laine a renowned singer and actress; Fenton Gray & ‘The Totties’ both of whom have performed at the London’s West End, & Glenn Amer, a Sydney based singer and pianist.
As mentioned earlier, guests from hundreds of countries have been coming here since 1939 and all have walked away with fond memories yet, there are many who keep coming back for more! Some of the regulars are; Mr & Mrs Gates from Australia who have visited 22 times, Mr. John Clemmens who has visited 10 times, & Mr. William Livingstone (who’s a famous National Geographic videographer) has visited 6 times. Glancing at some of the guest comments one can discern that the guests have walked away satisfied. The comments include adjectives such as fabulous, special, lovely, pleasurable, interesting, wonderful, memorable, etc which leave you in no doubt that this hotel is one helluva experience!
Some of the famous personalities from Bollywood who have come here are; Shah Rukh Khan, Farah Khan, Priyanka Chopra, Ranbir Kapoor (and the main cast of Barfi stayed here), Sushmita Sen, Gulshan Grover, Dipti Naval, to name a few. Tollywood celebs such as Soham, Abir, Saswata & Srabanti have stayed here. Hollywood stars who have stayed here are; Richard Gere, Jeremy Irons & Sir Peter Ustinov. Apart from movies, there are other famous personalities such as High Commissioners of UK & Canada; ambassadors from countries such as Russia, Italy, Germany, France, Thailand, Belgium, USA, to name some. Aristocrats too have come to experience the charms of Windarmere, such as the ones after whom the rooms have been named; even English royalty have stayed here in the past.
There are lots of places guests can visit nearby such as the Himalayan Zoo, the Himalayan Mountaineering Centre, the Tibetan Centre, a variety of monasteries, many tea estates, the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway which has been given a UNESCO tag, Tiger Hill and many others.
How most people in India haven’t heard of this incredibly fascinating & colonial hotel is mind-boggling, but the people who have visited have nothing but glowing praises for this hotel. The Windamere has managed to keep the heritage of the British Raj alive & intact with all the positive traditions of the Raj. However, this hotel certainly is an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so ensure you don’t miss the chance to get floored by their legendary hospitality!