Home to the closest major train station, Siliguri is the gateway to India's tea epicenter and is a four-hour drive away, usually in a seven-seater Jeep containing at least 12 people. As soon as you set foot on the stoney streets of Darjeeling, however, there's a notable shift in atmosphere. A stunning calm that's in stark contrast to the rest of India. The groups of illustrious locals who'd usually follow you for blocks offering goods or services are replaced by casual onlookers. The air is no longer filled with the relentless drone of car horns. The streets aren't packed past capacity with people, cattle and vehicles. You're simply left to your own devices and, without the need for near-constant negotiations, you can concentrate on navigating this mountain town.
Reminiscent of a European alpine setting, Darjeeling's snug lanes and winding avenues are lined with delicate-looking abodes and businesses. A quick stop at the very helpful Darjeeling Tourist Information Center on Bhanu Sarani will score you a map and list of vista-rich roads and paths to venture with no particular agenda in mind.
In addition, there are plenty of well-situated dining and/or drinking spots, ready for your patronage. From quaint tea houses to lively bars, a day can be happily whiled away comparing views, menus and drinks lists.
I don't drink tea. But I also don't smoke and you better believe I had a cigar at my graduation. With the same "when in Rome" logic, it would be negligent not to sample some local brews in Darjeeling. This can be enjoyed in a variety of formats all over town, but it's guaranteed to taste better after first taking a stroll through some neatly lined plantations. Winding their way around the valley, you'll find these fields dotted with brightly-clothed ladies hard at work. It's easy to kill an hour or two strolling through a setting that would sit comfortably in a Kipling novel and, when your camera is full of photos, you also have the chance to visit the factory to find out about the post-picking process.
From here, a leisurely retreat to the Windamere Hotel feels deserved yet decadent. High tea is served here every afternoon in all its doily-clad, floral print glory. Embrace the quaint surroundings while consuming sugared goods in quantities that could make a small nation diabetic.
You're going to have trouble suppressing your inner child with this one. A steam train dating back to 1881 still operates in the upper sections of a train track between near Darjeeling and for 400Rs you can take a scenic return trip on a piece of history. Now on the UNESCO world heritage list, it's everything you could want from an old-school train, replete with coal-shoveling drivers and a whistle that's in near constant use.
Feel like getting your geek on? Good. The Himalayan Mountaineering Institute houses a wealth of information about all Everest expeditions, including Edmund Hilary and Tenzing Norgay's historic first accent. Norgay is given special attention as a Nepalese Indian and you'll find some of his equipment still on display.
The zoo is modest, but offers great vantage points to photograph the immense valley bellow. There's also a snack hut that dishes out surprisingly delicious momos for when hungry visitors want a break from tiger and red panda watching.
An unexpected adrenaline sport has emerged in Darjeeling and it's not with the local paragliding tour operators. No, this thrill-seeking attraction comes in the form of the truly shambolic gondola known as the Darjeeling Ropeway which sets off from Singamari. Hand-pushed onto the cable, it shakes violently, bounces up to twice the height of the cabin and halts alarmingly. In almost two decades of skiing, I've never ridden anything like it. Only the well-insured should roll the dice with this one.
Every country has its chill-out centers. England has Cornwall, Australia has Byron Bay and India has Darjeeling. Nothing moves quickly here. Not the gondola, train and least of all you. It's an opportunity to breathe out, Kingfisher beer in hand, and enjoy the culinary and cultural delights on your terms, exploring the true range of this ever-intriguing country. Just be sure to bring a good jacket.