Guest blogger Mariellen Ward shares her experiences and photographs of Simla and Darjeeling with us.
The first time I travelled in India, in 2005-06, I arrived with a treasure trove of fantasies and ideas about India — and my expectations were high. I knew about the fairytale desert forts, the sacred pilgrimage sites, the monumental metropolises and, of course, the quaint hill stations, fabled relics of a bygone era.
Every hill station in India lays claim to being the “queen of hill stations” and I am sure they all have their charms. I haven’t been to all of them, just two in fact — Simla and Darjeeling — but they both won my allegiance.
I arrived in Simla after a month of volunteering in Dharamsala, and I was looking forward to a few days of aimless respite. I had been ill in Dharamsala, and was worried the long drive to Simla — along narrow winding roads with heart-stopping drop-offs — would wear me down.
But as soon as I arrived in the hill top town, I felt my spirits lift. I have discovered after almost 15 months of travel in India, spread over five trips, that places either strongly agreed with me — or the opposite. Simla agreed with me. It turned out to be the perfect place for a break from it all. I found the mountain air and panoramic views reviving, and I loved to just stroll along the ridge-top Mall discovering historical sites like the former Viceregal Lodge (now an educational institute) and Scandal Point.
After a day or two in Simla, my boyfriend joined me, and when together we walked along the Mall I was aware that at one time we would have caused a scandal indeed: a woman of British descent walking with an Indian man. In fact, it would have been illegal for him to walk on the Mall before independence. Times do change for the better.
When it came time to leave our beloved sojourn in Simla, we took the toy train down to Kalka, where we were meeting the train back to Delhi. We stopped and ate snacks along the way, counted the 103 tunnels, joked about walking alongside the train (and probably getting to our destination faster) and had a delightful time.
It was several years before I travelled to my second hill station. I was approaching a red-letter birthday — a biggie! — and I pondered deeply about where I wanted to spend it. But even though I pondered, I knew: Watching the sunrise against the backdrop of the white wall of the Himalayas from Tiger Hill, outside of Darjeeling.
I arrived the day before my birthday and it was love at first sight. I walked up to the top of Observatory Hill, to Mahakala Temple, sacred to both Hindus and Buddhists and then had tea at the historic Windamere Hotel, one of Asia’s top heritage hotels. The views of swirling mist around the mountain top; the sound of the temple’s hundreds of prayer flags flapping; the taste of the light, fragrant, tea — I loved it all.
The next morning, I bound out of bed before dawn to make the drive up to Tiger Hill for the sunrise — knowing that we may or may not have a clear day (the odds seem to be about 3-to-1 against). Luckily for me, and a good augur for the decade to come, the morning dawned perfectly clear. And though the viewing area was crowded and noisy, and I was tired and cold, watching the sunrise light up the white wall of the Himalayas in the distance — colouring the mountains gold, rose pink and deep mauve by turn — was worth the effort. It was one of the most spectacular travel moments of my life.
My guide Paras and I walked part way down Tiger Hill, stopping at a tiny, ancient Durga temple, built literally into the side of the hill, with earth and tree roots forming the interior. We arrived just in time for puja — just Paras, me and three female devotees — and I received a blessing. As we walked further down, we continued to see the five massive peaks of mighty Kanchendzonga, the world’s third highest mountain, looming above the valley like a giant ocean liner sailing on a sea of clouds.
Back at the Windamere for breakfast and more Darjeeling tea, I was served on the terrace with the panoramic view. And as I watched the dance of the breaking sun vying with the swirling mists, and heard the prayer flags from the temple above flapping in the breeze, I felt serenely, majestically happy.
Images are of Darjeeling and the Makaibari Tea Company. See more of Mariellen’s photographs from this trip.
About the guest blogger: Mariellen Ward is a Canadian freelance writer and travel blogger, well-known on the Internet for her love of “all things India.” Mariellen has traveled for more than a year altogether in India and publishes an India-inspired travel blog Breathedreamgo. She writes about India, meaningful adventure travel and yoga for newspapers, magazines and many online sites and recently published her first book, Song of India: Tales of Travel and Transformation.
Find out about the homestay experience and don't forget to check out our ideas on things to do in India or browse our India homestays.