India’s tea estates beckon tea connoisseurs from around the world.
The silky sunrays kiss your forehead, the cool breeze caresses your hair and the fragrant air infuses your spirit with prana (life force). Step out of your room, holding your bespoke hot cuppa and sit in the veranda of this old colonial building set amidst lush tea estates. Watch tea-pickers pluck the newest leaves and toss them into the wicker baskets on their backs or witness the soft drops of the hill rain turn the landscape into a misty wonderland. Enjoy a fascinating tea tour and indulge in flavorful tea tasting sessions. What’s more, with the world’s best range of teas in these 500-plus plantations, have your tea custom-made. And how about planting your own tea bush to mark your visit?
The exotic tea tours showcase the process through which the humble leaf is transformed into the much-sought after brew. It’s fascinating to see colorfully-dressed tea pluckers, predominantly women, plucking the delicate leaves and a bud adroitly with their lissom fingers. The tea tasting sessions in the tea gardens of India allow tea lovers to discover the differences in aroma, flavor and appearance of tea manufactured using different techniques, and during different times of the year. Often the sessions also include tasting teas from other parts of India and the world, together with examples of flavored and blended teas.
Darjeeling is home to the “first biodynamic” tea garden, Makaibari Tea Estate. One of the world’s most revered names in Darjeeling tea, Makaibari boasts of selling one of the world’s costliest black teas at Rs 22,000 ($500) per kg in 2005. Makaibari’s pastoral Stone Lodge features several luxury suites, the Makaibari Guest House and the dwellings of tea garden workers.
“Besides being the first garden to be certified for trade in the world, we were also the first to market Darjeeling Greens, Oolongs and Silver Tips,” says Rajah Banerjee, the fourth generation owner of this 1859 tea estate. “We grow vegetables in our biodynamic garden of the Stone House. And hence, our meals are all organic.” The enchanting forest cover of this estate has made it home to many endangered species, including panthers, tigers, birds, butterflies, snakes, spiders, etc.
Then there is Kurseong, a fine boutique hotel where the theme is tea and trains, and the Cochrane Place. The door to this cafe is shaped like an engine. The mesmeric place offers a jacuzzi spurts tea bath, tea facials, and tea-based dinner.
Further east from Darjeeling, one gets to bite some flowery, spicy and malty flavors of tea. One of the major tea producers in the world, Assam is home to numerous tea estates spread across 216,200 hectares of land that produce more than 360 million kg of tea annually.
Assam is also the birthplace of Indian tea, a story that dates back to 1823 when an enterprising Englishman named Robert Bruce discovered the tea plant growing wild in the state and exported the first 8 chests of Indian tea to a London auction in 1839.
“One who has experienced it knows how exciting it is to learn to pluck two leaves and a bud and then get exposed to withering, machine and hand rolling, fermentation/oxidation, drying, sorting and packing, not to mention the numerous cupping and tastings in a tea factory. The best idea is to let visitors experience first-hand the secrets of ‘terroir’ — that spiritual connection between soil, climate, plant genes and human activity that defines our ‘vintage’,” says Anand Chatterjee, president of a fourth generation owned tea company, Signature Estates.
“It’s nice to see a spurt in the number of international tourists in Wild Mahseer Lodge,” says Durgadas Sarcar, manager. Wild Mahseer is especially known for its sumptuous multi-cuisine specialities, palatial rooms, picturesque locale and global tea tasting sessions. The lodge is well-equipped for fast and still water fishing.
Intertwined with local culture, folk dance and music, a stay in the 140-year-old Mancotta Chang Bungalow is a lifetime experience. Rishi Saraf, manager of Purvi Discovery, which owns this heritage bungalow, says, “In recent years, the number of foreign visitors staying at our lodge has risen considerably. We get many tourists from countries like America, Britain, Germany, Switzerland, Poland, France, Italy, Netherlands, and Korea.”
Some of the most prominent tea estates in Assam are the Williamson Tea Estates and those owned by the Tata Group. Visitors here can take exciting elephant tours of Assamese plantations. Many tea resorts arrange safaris to Kaziranga and Orang National Park and, in collaboration with the Nameri National Park, angling and river rafting on the Bhorelli River.
A clear copper-gold colored, brisk liquor, and gentle fragrance define the Nilgiri cup. Set amidst romantic misty mountains, bubbly brooks and lovely dark woods, Nilgiri embraces nature at its charming and serene best. Stretching across the southwestern tip of India, at an altitude of 4,500 feet from sea level, the tea estates offer picturesque views of hilly expanses from the Western Ghats to Kerala and Tamil Nadu.
For an inclusive tour of this Southern tea-growing region ExplorIndya is a one-stop destination. Set in the tea-sloped hills of Nilgiris, ExplorIndya is an extension of a family-owned eco-homestay called Aakriti. “The home-stay is set amidst our four-acre tea garden that borders a reserve forest close to the town of Ooty,” says Rajat Kumar, the founder. “As plantation owners for the past 18 years, we offer our knowledge right from the process of cultivation, harvesting through final production.”
In addition to providing guests with tours of tea plantations and factories, the package offers nature walks, wildlife safaris, bird-watching, tribal life insights, discovering the primeval art of tribal wild-honey hunting, an Indian family experience, and cooking classes.
The Tata Tea Museum at the Nullathani Tea Estate takes visitors through the forgotten past of the high ranges and offers a glimpse of the 100-year-old history of the region — from the rudimentary original tea roller to the present, fully automated tea factory at Mattupetty.
At Coonoor, the Nilgiris auction center, nearly a half million kgs. of tea are sold weekly. Trekking and hiking is popular in Coonoor. Some of the popular tea esates in Nilgiri include Tiger Hill, Corsley, Craigmore, Pascoes Woodlands, Colacumby, Nonsuch Dunsandale, Chamraj, Parkside, and Glendale.
TripAdvisor recently named Munnar in Kerala as the world’s second most famous tourist destination. Essentially a tea town, Munnar unfolds in stretches of mountains and hillocks carpeted with vast green tea gardens. It also cradles many rare wild species. Sweet scented sandalwood trees grow thick and fast at Marayoor in Munnar. It is a treasure house of bio-diversity. The snow-soaked dawns at Munnar mesmerize tourists.
Other tea producing regions in India include Dehradun (Uttaranchal), Teria-and-Dooars (West Bengal), Palampur (Himachal Pradesh), and some parts of Sikkim and Manipur.
Here is your chance at a different travel experience at luxurious tea bungalows, ensconced in the most beautiful regions, interact with tea workers, try your hand at plucking tea leaves, and visiting tea factories to understand the tea refining process.