“This is your own home now,” announces our host, welcoming us to Thengal Manor. And we wish it was, this gracious residence of one of India’s great tea dynasties, which has opened the family villa, with its idyllic gardens and an impeccable staff of 15, to overnight visitors.
Thengal Manor marked the start of a two-week journey through the world’s finest tea growing areas — India’s Assam and Darjeeling. We mingled with nimble-fingered women as they plucked a green sea of bushes with astounding speed, we drank pink gins by the fireplace in colonial-era parlors and we were very easily seduced by the pampered lifestyle of tea planters.
And of course, we drank many a cup of Assamese — “bold, sultry, malty” — and Darjeeling — “the champagne of teas, the color of Himalayan sunlight” — enough to send aficionados into ecstasy.
Let me confess that I am not particularly tea-addicted. Too much tannin does funny things to my tummy. But my wife, a Scot, more than makes up for it. So that, plus our love for northeast India, sparked our interest in a travel niche that is very much a growing trend: tea tourism.
It’s not a particularly well-organized pocket of the industry, but more tea estates, also called gardens, are opening their properties to guests interested not only in their product and how it comes to be, but in the unique world of tea planters, the “burra sahibs,” and their domain. Most estates are charmers dating back to the British Raj.
Those taking to the tea trails of northeast India, regions of the south and Sri Lanka, include locals and foreigners. Among them are an increasing number of Americans, apparently because of a percolating interest in the US in the art and taste of quality teas, though my wife insists American tea culture still consists of “hot water and a tea bag.”
TEA TRAIL ACCOMMODATIONS:
Thengal Manor, Jorhat, India, doubles US$120, www.heritagetourism.india.com
The Heritage Bungalow, Balipara, India, double occupancy, US$460 including meals. Other bungalows are US$156, including meals, www.wildmahseer.com
Windamere, Darjeeling, India, Colonial Suite, double occupancy, US$210 including meals, www.windamerehotel.com
Maikabari, Kurseong, India, homestays US$11 per person including meals. Tea is free, www.makaibari.com
GETTING THERE: The airport in Kolkata, India, has the best air links to both Assam and Darjeeling regions. Taxis can be hired at most larger towns.
WHEN TO GO: Weather-wise, October through February is best in both Assam and Darjeeling but tea production takes a winter break toward the end of November.
Along with two friends from France, my wife and I had Thengal Manor to ourselves, its five acres (two hectares) of lawns, a chandeliered dining room with elegant silverware, bedrooms with soaring ceilings and four-poster beds and a gallery of portraits of the Barooah family going back to Bisturam Barooah, whose son built the manor in 1929 after becoming the richest Indian tea planter in Assam.
The family began to take in visitors in 2000, but it remains very much their personal place. In a serene enclosure behind the manor stand 19 temple-like tombs, one prepared for the current patriarch.
ART OF TEA PRODUCTION
During our time at Thengal, ringed by rice fields, bamboo groves and neat village homes, we visited the nearby factory of the Gatoonga Tea Estate to observe the five stages of black tea-making and tour two contrasting tea trail options: Gatoonga’s Mistry Sahib’s bungalow and the Burra Sahib bungalow on the Sangsua Tea Estate.
The century-old Mistry is the ultimate getaway, almost smothered by the surrounding greenery, a classic bungalow with a wrap-around verandah shaded by an immense banyan tree. Burra Sahib has been modernized and features an 18-hole golf course meandering through the tea gardens.
Our second stay in Assam was on the Addabarie Tea Estate near the city of Tezpur, where a tourism enterprise has leased a luxurious onetime residence of the tea estate manager, the three-bedroom 1875 Heritage Bungalow, and five more modest houses.
“The tea planter’s lifestyle is this,” said manager Durrez Ahmed with a wave of his hand. “Lovely bungalows, sets of servants attending to your every need. So visitors who want to enjoy this kind of lifestyle come.”