Bengaluru has been unusually warm. The kid had a short vacation. I had a 400-page murder mystery to read. An interruption to our routines was necessary. In choosing a retreat, I turned to my bucket list of tea gardens to visit.
There are several reasons to choose a tea estate for a break: be it their history, the people and the tea, the promise of forested paths, or, perhaps, a bit of indulgence. Tea plantation experiences are about stepping into a time portal and living as the planters lived.
Converting colonial-era bungalows into heritage hotels and boutique home-stays is a great way to preserve the buildings. I spent a weekend last month at a nearly 100-year-old Sinna Dorai bungalow at the Kadamane tea estate in Sakleshpur, Karnataka. I had booked a cottage that was once the estate post office. A small library in the main bungalow offered some charmingly out-of-date stories from the Planters’ Chronicle.
Old planters’ stories are probably the most underrated of adventure tales. Standing on the verandah, looking out at the vast vistas, I tried to imagine the British arriving at these forested hillsides, plotting roads, earmarking sections to cultivate tea, harnessing the people they needed, while battling wild animals, malaria, leeches, homesickness. There is incredibly rich and fascinating history that is worth recording and preserving. Life as a tea planter is not easy. Not then, and not now.
The tea bungalow experience can be enjoyed across India, in Darjeeling (West Bengal), the Nilgiris (Tamil Nadu), across Assam, Kangra (Himachal Pradesh) and Kerala.
If you are looking for a more immersive, maybe less indulgent experience, here are a few to consider. For instance, the Makaibari home-stay programme (Makaibari.com) in Darjeeling, initiated by the garden’s former owner, Rajah Banerjee, to offer tea workers a chance to earn extra income. If you like slow travel, Ujjawal Chettri’s home-stay, Reyso (reyso.urbanhomestay on Facebook), also in Darjeeling, offers conversations, music, Nepali cooking lessons, and yes, tea tours too.
And if you are a history buff, it’s Assam that holds sheer wealth of history. It’s too vast an area to narrow down choices. So I leave you with two places on my list. The Singpho Eco Lodge in Margherita village (named by an Italian engineer after a princess) in Tinsukia. The story of India’s tea begins with the Singpho, who were drinking it long before the East India Company set up the gardens in India. While there, do take a detour to Ledo Road, built during World War II to connect the Allied forces to China. And Folklore Tea (folkloretea.com), which has begun a grass-roots movement with cooperative groups. Not only do I like it that they send poems with their tea, they also offer immersive farm tourism experiences.
Rare India (rareindia.com) has a curated list of tea plantation retreats, including the Sinna Dorai bungalows. Singpho Eco Lodge is listed on Trip Advisor.
Also read | Is this the most beautiful tea in the world?
Aravinda Anantharaman is a Bengaluru-based tea blogger and writer who reports on the tea industry. @AravindaAnanth1 on Twitter.