Sanjay Agarwal (November 2020)
I have been an ardent follower of your blog for many years now. Great going!
I am fortunate that my work (I happen to export leather bags) has taken me all over the world, to every reachable continent and several times over.
In all my travels across the world, I am yet to come to any place that offered me the value for money that this hidden gem, Singtom Tea Estate & Resort, offered. The Singtom experience would cost you about $600 a night anywhere in Europe, but in India, we can get it for $100-200, depending on the extras that you tack on to your room.
I have a particular affection for plantations. I have visited cardamom, coffee, rubber, wine, tea, apple, ginger and orange plantations globally and have concluded that tea plantations are by far the prettiest. My conclusion took me on a fortnight-long journey of tea plantations in Darjeeling, since it is right next to home (Siliguri). I have given my summary of the experience below.
Place 1: Sourenee Tea Estate. What a disappointing experience! My stay pinched my pocket to the tune of about $400 a night (3 nights), but I left after my first night because the place offered no view of the mountains. By mountains, I mean the snow-clad Himalayan peaks, which is really why you come to Darjeeling in the first place. Sourenee offers no view of these mountains and so does not whet my appetite as a traveller.
Place 2: Singtom Tea Estate & Resort. An unbelievable, truly authentic experience. The highest mountains on earth were a hair's breadth away from me, including the Kanchenjunga Massif. The rooms, hospitality, tours, food, roads, etc. far exceeded the price I paid, which was a mere $200 a night all inclusive. If I have 2 memories that truly stand out, #1 is the view of the snow-clad peaks even at night, and #2 is the truly surreal 360 Point Picnic.
Place 3: Ging Tea House. I felt strange paying 50% higher at Ging for an experience similar to what I had at Singtom. A good place, worth the money as well, but if you can get the same thing for 2/3rd the price, why pay higher? My 2 stand out memories: #1 The view point from the lawn is fantastic. You can see a panoramic valley view from there. #2: The bonfire arrangement at night was great in the winter.
Place 4: Glenburn Tea Estate. I was intrigued by Glenburn before going. I wondered why it cost a similar amount to the best properties in India (Taj Lake Palace Udaipur, Oberoi Vanyavilas, etc.). I had read a lot about Glenburn, their British hosts, their vast menus, their hospitality, etc. before going. However, after visiting the earlier places before arriving at Glenburn, what I noticed that Glenburn, while offering an outstanding experience in its own right with equally stunning mountain views, does not offer what I would term as a "truly authentic, value-for-money" tea plantation experience. Glenburn is not a place for even the high-end Indian tourist.
It is, in many ways, a mini-Scotland, Ireland or England, but not really Darjeeling. It is still worth the money, for those who can afford it, but it pales in comparison to other properties in the country and world that charge similar prices. I still have wonderful memories of Glenburn: #1: The meal near the Rungneet River was tranquil. #2 The communal dining was a pleasure since I ended up making 3 friends from Kent, UK (this can be construed as annoying for those who aren't social).
Place 5: Goomtee Tea Estate & Resort. A very, very disappointing experience. You cannot see the snow-clad peaks from here, and the service is sub-standard. I would not have paid even half of what I did here ($150 a night).
On my way back to the airport from Goomtee, I began to reflect on my 5 estate visits.
I found Glenburn to be, by far, the most luxurious of them all. If you want to be spoilt, pampered, and get the feeling that you are in India but not really in India, go to Glenburn (if you can afford it).
I found Singtom to be, pound-for-pound, the best experience. If you want to be spoilt, pampered, and yet enjoy an authentic Indian, Himalayan and tea plantation experience, go to Singtom. Price will not be a barrier unless you are a backpacker.
Go to the others if these 2 places aren't available. They may not be because they don't have very many rooms.
On a different note, I am curious to know your thoughts on these estates. Would you be kind enough to share?
Raj (darjeeling-tourism.com) November 2020
Thanks for sending me a detailed review of your stay at the tea resorts. I must say you are quite spot on and my findings too are quite similar which I have penned down in my various articles on these tea estate resorts.
I agree that the view of snow peaks is one of the key attractions for the tourists. However, there is one more consideration for travellers like me... since most of these tea gardens were originally set up by the British planters, I also look for the authentic aura of the time and the way the British planters lived. And therefore, the accommodation itself, whether it's a restored original planter's bungalow or not, is of great significance to me.
Sourenee loses out here grossly as it has no means to offer that... they are one of the exceptions in Darjeeling that doesn't have a British heritage and their accommodation is a newly constructed resort building... a big dampener in that sense. Singtom, on the other hand, offers an all-round experience at a reasonable cost. In fact, Singtom-Steinthall happens to be the first tea garden that was set up in Darjeeling.. so, I would agree that it's a great value for money.
Apart from views, heritage and experiencing tea garden life, another important aspect of tea tourism is food. Singtom might be cutting out a large segment of tourists because it offers only vegetarian food. I personally found the food at Singtom exceptionally good and there are great variations too, but knowing the obsessions of most non-vegetarians, it's likely that many of them may not consider a stay here only for this. And, all who plan for a tea resort stay, like to have an all-inclusive experience rather than having to go out and dine. However, Singtom may not mind this because they have limited number of rooms anyway (after all it's only a bungalow) and they enjoy a high reputation, so it's likely that they will still go full during the season.