Why You Really Should See the Incredible Mountains and Beaches of This Under-visited Part of India
When we arrived in the capital of the Indian state of West Bengal, my family and I were excited to sample some local delicacies. So we immediately went in search of Chinese food. West Bengal is a borderland, abutting three countries on the northeastern edge of India — Bhutan, Nepal, and Bangladesh — and close enough to China that Kolkata has its own Chinatown. In this neighborhood, Chinese cookery has transmogrified into something new: Indian-Chinese cuisine, a beloved, gloopy hybrid known locally as “Chindian.” At a restaurant called Golden Joy, we filled our table with dishes you’d never find in China — chili paneer, cauliflower Manchurian, chicken lollipops.
India’s diversity is often most vivid along its borders, where the country’s neighbors influence and complicate its cultures in all sorts of unpredictable (and sometimes volatile) ways. This year, my wife, Shahnaz, and I decided to take our six-year-old daughter, Sophy, to a part of India we’d never seen — the east. We devised a trip that would begin and end in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), the longtime capital of British India, located 36 miles west of Bangladesh. From there we would travel to Darjeeling: the tea-growing region in the Himalayan foothills, just 10 miles east of Nepal. Finally, doubling back through Kolkata, we would head to the Andaman Islands: a wild, remote archipelago about a thousand miles to the south. It was a route that would offer us the greatest possible variety of landscapes — megacity, mountain, and tropical island.
The great advantage of traveling with my wife and daughter is that I get to see everything through three sets of eyes. Shahnaz was born and raised in the southern Indian state of Kerala, where coffee rules, and it was useful to have along a tea skeptic as we planned a trip that would take us deep into tea country. Our daughter is fascinated above all by birds, which I’d never paid much attention to until she trained me to notice the skies as much as the streets. On our first morning at the storied Oberoi Grand hotel, she spied a nest of elegant black kites in a palm tree outside our window: a family of three, just like us.
The instant we stepped outside the serene, well-shaded Oberoi we were thrust into the hurly-burly that spills out from the New Market, a crowded arcade of shops that is actually 144 years old. There, we found more birds — a motorized eagle with flapping wings (price on the box, 32 rupees; asking price, 500 rupees; price we settled for, 200 rupees, or around $3) and a tiny brass owl inlaid with green stones. We began to recognize the distinguishing characteristics of the city’s architecture: crumbling colonial edifices with wooden shutters and elaborate wrought-iron balconies. And we found that the traffic was dominated by vehicles we hadn’t seen in any other Indian city: trams, hand-pulled rickshaws, curvy yellow Ambassador taxis.
The more we wandered, the more I realized what we weren’t finding. Kolkata has a reputation as a city of squalor and starvation — an image that Mother Teresa’s fame helped cement in the Western imagination. This image, we discovered, is badly outdated. Over the past few years, Kolkata has quietly established itself as a tech hub, its arts scene has flowered in an array of new galleries, and its residents have begun approaching the city’s unique architectural heritage with a new sense of reinvention.
Next to the Marble Palace — an amazingly ostentatious private home, now open to visitors, built by an art-loving Bengali merchant in 1835 — we visited a ruined mansion whose courtyard has been repurposed as an outdoor pop-up photography gallery. And on Ho Chi Minh Sarani (named to troll the U.S. Consulate down the street), a grand old open-well staircase leads to a multimedia space called the Harrington Street Arts Centre.
A painter and sculptor named Samir Roy was there preparing his new show, which was full of wonderfully weird, anxious figures that suggest a meeting between Goya and Ralph Steadman. “Indian modern art started in Kolkata,” Roy said, and we noted the outsize number of groundbreaking masters the city has produced: the poet Rabindranath Tagore, the filmmaker Satyajit Ray, and the painter Ganesh Pyne, among many others. Roy invited me to the even newer art space where he lives, on the outskirts of the city, called the ArtsAcre Foundation, which offers apartments to creative city residents and houses a swelling collection of new Bengali art.
Around the corner from Ho Chi Minh Sarani, a hotelier named Husna-Tara Prakash has effected another urban metamorphosis. She has transformed the top two floors and roof of a clunky office building into Kolkata’s first boutique hotel, the Glenburn Penthouse. It offers perhaps the city’s best panorama, including a superlative view of the Victoria Memorial — a massive white marble monument to the former British monarch, completed in 1921, that served as a colonial approximation of the Taj Mahal.
The Glenburn Penthouse was conceived as a place, Prakash told me, for guests to “exit the streets of Kolkata into somewhere light, clean, and spacious.” When we visited, she was putting the finishing touches on the place, which has a carefully curated whimsy: my daughter was delighted to discover, for example, that the elevator opens on the seventh floor to an explosion of prints and mosaics of green parrots. So complete is the change Prakash has overseen, you’d never guess at the mundane architectural bones hiding underneath the hotel’s bright white walls.
The hotel’s transformation reminded me of the extraordinary work we witnessed in Kolkata’s Kumartuli neighborhood. Along its lanes, hundreds of artisans weave figures out of straw, over which they layer clay to produce remarkably realistic sculptures of Hindu idols. Many will be launched into the Ganges, which empties into the Bay of Bengal, during fall’s Durga Puja festival — a celebration of the victory of a goddess over a demon king. It was a thrilling exhibition of craftsmanship, all the more enjoyable because no one tried to sell us anything — one of the great perks of visiting a city that has long been underestimated.
Checking out of the Oberoi Grand, I overheard one receptionist say urgently to another, “Mr. Dasgupta needs all six newspapers, including the Bengali ones.” I picked up a local newspaper and found an article that detailed the latest developments in “the Darjeeling issue” but never said what the issue was. Kolkatans are such reliable newspaper readers that it can be assumed that everyone’s kept up on each saga and doesn’t need the context explained. I was eager to catch up.
From Kolkata we flew north, where we planned to stay a few days at Husna-Tara Prakash’s original hotel project, the Glenburn Tea Estate, in the mountains of West Bengal’s Darjeeling district. On the drive up into the Himalayan foothills from Bagdogra Airport, we saw tiny tea trees fanning out in every direction. Tea cultivation is one of the most beautiful forms of agriculture: the plantations looked as if a crazy land artist had upholstered the undulating hillside with giant panels of jade-green corduroy.
As we snaked uphill, around innumerable hairpin curves, the surroundings became increasingly rustic. I started to think the driver must be lost. And then we arrived at Glenburn, an impossibly manicured 19th-century colonial bungalow that appeared like a mirage from between the hills. On a clear day it has dramatic views of Kanchenjunga, the third-highest mountain in the world, just 45 miles away on the Nepali border. Our host, an affable Australian named Graeme Gibson, greeted us with ginger cookies and a tea that Glenburn calls Moonshine. This was their highest-quality Darjeeling tea — an exceptionally delicate brew that they happened to be plucking that very week. Even my wife had to admit it was exquisite.
In the morning, Glenburn’s estate manager, Parveez Hussain, gave me a tour of the tea factory. There was not an electronic device to be seen — Hussain tests every stage of production by sight, smell, and feel. “We’re making a connoisseur product,” he said. “Like a single-malt whiskey.” We tried teas ranging from pale yellow to deep amber. I hadn’t known that black, green, and oolong teas all come from the same Camellia sinensis trees; their category depends on when they’re plucked and how they’re processed. What makes them Darjeeling is the fact that they’re grown on these particular hills.
As we sipped from a series of small white porcelain bowls, Hussain caught me up on “the Darjeeling issue.” Although Darjeeling is in West Bengal, only a small proportion of its population is Bengali; many locals belong to a Nepali-speaking community known as the Gorkhas, who have long agitated for their own state. In June of last year, separatist leaders called for a mass strike across the district, bringing tea production to a halt. The strike lasted 104 days. “Last year was disastrous,” Hussain said. The tea trees became wildly overgrown and were now being harvested for the first time since before the strike. In the history of Darjeeling, he said, the plants had never before had such a rest — and everyone was curious how it would affect the flavor. The result was a sweeter brew.
After the tour, a Glenburn staffer named Ranjan Chettri took us for a picnic lunch on the riverbank. Four thousand people live within the 1,600 acres of Glenburn; most of them, like Chettri, work in the tea trade. “My great-grandfather planted this tea,” he said. The villages we passed were picture-perfect: brightly painted, meticulously gardened, ornamented with Buddhist prayer flags. As we walked, Chettri expressed support for the Gorkhas. “Our culture, our language, our religion — everything is different from the rest of West Bengal,” he said. The Gorkhas have nothing against the state, he stressed — they just want their share of resources that faraway Kolkata too often monopolizes.
Back at the bungalow, Gibson, our host, overheard my daughter talking about birds. “Oh, we’ll have to arrange a bird walk for you,” he said. Early the next morning, we stepped outside and saw two flashes of red and neon green soar past. “Green magpies!” a voice called out from the terrace above us. This was Sabin Mukhia, a bird-loving Glenburn staffer who’d come to lead us on an avian tour. He took us down a narrow path that winds along the steep tea-tree hillside, where dozens of white cabbage butterflies flitted around us and children wearing uniforms and backpacks squeezed past us on the way to school.
Mukhia pointed out bird after bird, many of which had names as delightful as their colors: a greater necklaced laughing thrush; a spangled drongo; a chestnut-headed bee-eater. Suddenly Mukhia pointed up the hillside, to where two Asian barred owlets were snuggling on a branch. Then the 7 a.m. siren blew, calling the tea pluckers to work, and the owlets flew away. When we rounded the next curve, a Glenburn staffer was waiting with a picnic breakfast. Typical of Glenburn’s attention to detail, the teacups and saucers were decorated with drawings of birds.
Most evenings at Glenburn began with drinks around a bonfire (“That’s where they throw the coffee lovers,” my wife said). This would be followed by dinner at a communal table. On our last night, there was a slight variation in the program: a group of local musicians and schoolchildren stopped by to sing songs in Nepali about life in the hills. As a finale, Chettri came out and sang a haunting Nepali love song.
Two short flights and one fast ferry later, we reached the third point on our tour. The Andamans are an archipelago of 325 islands around 820 miles off India’s eastern coast. Only 21 of the islands are populated, and most of the tourism occurs on Havelock Island, which is named after a British general who died of dysentery while attempting to suppress the great Indian Rebellion of 1857. His namesake isle is a profoundly placid slice of lush tropical beauty — and one, thus far, visited by remarkably few travelers.
A local guide, Karthik Mudaliar, picked us up at the dock. Like many Indian mainlanders who live on Havelock, he said he came for a visit and never left. “I’ve been to a lot of places that claim to take a daily siesta,” Mudaliar said, “but this is the only place I’ve been that takes it seriously.”
For years, the Andaman Islands were an exemplar of inaccessibility. The plots of two popular murder mysteries — the 1890 Sherlock Holmes story “The Sign of the Four” and M. M. Kaye’s 1960 novel Death in the Andamans — hinge on the islands’ remoteness. One of the Andamans’ four indigenous communities, the Sentinelese, is likely the most isolated tribe in the world; travel to the island on which they live is strictly banned. In the Raj era, the British used the Andaman Islands as a penal colony. One notorious jailer, it’s said, would tell new inmates, “You see those walls around? Do you know why they are so low? Because no one escapes from this place. All around for a thousand miles there is nothing but sea.” He was exaggerating a little; the nearest land — the coast of Myanmar — is less than 200 miles away.
Tourism on Havelock only really picked up after the 2004 tsunami, when damage to the island brought it unprecedented attention. (The casualties were much worse on the neighboring Nicobar Islands, where tourism remains prohibited.) For now, the Andamans are in a sweet spot for visitors: easy enough to access, complete with all the activities and comforts a beach vacationer might want, but still impressively unspoiled. Havelock Island’s two paved roads, each served by exactly one bus and just a handful of other vehicles, will take you where you need to go, and nowhere else. The interior of Havelock is thickly forested; many of its trees are embellished with elaborate buttress roots that give them purchase in the sandy soil. But its perimeter is fringed with some of the most pristine beaches on earth.
We stayed on Radhanagar Beach, where the Taj hotel group has just opened the newest, most luxurious resort on Havelock Island — the Taj Exotica Resort & Spa, Andamans. At the entrance, a half-dozen staffers lined up to sing to us in the language of the islands’ Jarawa people about life on the islands. Guests staying freestanding villas on stilts, which are built out of wood and inspired by Jarawa homes, like very upscale versions of a beach shack. At times the place was so quiet and serene that I felt I was on a monastic retreat — but one where snorkeling was always an option.
The resort’s then chef, Kaushik Misra, told me how he’d designed the menu. After India gained independence in 1947, waves of mainland Indians began migrating to the islands in search of land and work. These new arrivals came mostly from West Bengal and Tamil Nadu — two states with wildly different cuisines. The Bengali love of sugar and mustard oil met with the Tamil attachment to coconut and tamarind, both of which mingled with local tribal cooking methods and ingredients—taro, cresses, rock lobster, mangrove crab — to create a new cuisine entirely (and one that’s much lighter and subtler than all these collisions might suggest).
Misra told me that he spent nearly a month cooking with villagers across 20 of the Andaman Islands. He explained his guiding principle: “let the food be authentic to what people eat here.” So the menu listed mochar chop (banana flower cooked with mustard oil, ginger, and peanuts, borrowed from Bengali settlers on Havelock Island) and grouper steamed in a banana leaf, as in Kerala, but served with the short-grain rice preferred by Bengalis.
The Andamans are known as a bird-watcher’s paradise, teeming with unusual endemic birds — most famously, edible-nest swiftlets, whose dwellings, which they use their own saliva to build, are said to make an excellent soup. The Taj’s resident naturalist, Jocelyn Panjikaran, took us on an early-morning walk to see if we could spot some. An overcast sky kept bird activity low, and we didn’t spot anything unusual — mostly species that can be found elsewhere, like kingfishers, swifts, and egrets.
But Panjikaran’s enthusiasm made us see the wonder even in the most everyday things. We scrambled over strange rocks on the beach’s intertidal zone, marveling at hermit crabs and mudskippers, then detoured into the forest, which she told us was inhabited by no nonhuman mammal bigger or more dangerous than a boar. The crime rate in the Andamans is near zero; Panjikaran said she feels safer walking in this forest, day or night, than anywhere else in India.
But the Andamans are still very much a borderland; you never know who or what will wash up on the beach. On our last morning, my daughter and I took one more dip in the transparent water, bobbing and laughing on the gentle waves. At its most crowded we had seen only a couple dozen people on this white-sand beach, but that morning we had it entirely to ourselves.
And then, farther up the beach, we spotted something drifting ashore. It was a life-size human figure woven out of straw — exactly like the ones we’d seen a thousand miles north, built by the artisans in Kumartuli. Maybe the local Bengali settlers had built it for their own Durga Puja festival. Or, who knows? Maybe it had drifted all the way from Kolkata, an intrepid idol making its own tour of the easterly fringes of India.
The cheapest and fastest flights into Kolkata are often also, happily, the best: on Emirates or Etihad, connecting through Abu Dhabi or Dubai.
We stayed at the Oberoi Grand (doubles from $320), a classic property with a pretty pool. The Glenburn Penthouse (doubles from $355), a beautifully decorated boutique hotel, opens in October. For Bengali food, try Kewpie’s (2 Elgin Lane; 91-33-2486-1600; entrées $6–$14), where you can order a multicourse thali meal, or sample Indian-Chinese cuisine at Golden Joy (entrées $5–$11). Visit the Harrington Street Arts Centre and the Arts Acre Foundation for a taste of Kolkata’s cultural scene.
The quickest route to the Glenburn Tea Estate (doubles from $650, all-inclusive) is an hour-long flight to Bagdogra Airport followed by a four-hour drive, the final 40 minutes of which are on extremely bumpy roads. But the views are stunning,
and the driver, provided by Glenburn, makes a merciful hillside refreshment stop (complete with tea service, naturally).
The flight from Kolkata to Port Blair on South Andaman Island takes an hour and 15 minutes; when you land, you’ll need to take 10 minutes to apply for a Restricted Area Permit. To reach Havelock, the main island, book the Makruzz ferry (round-trip fare $30), which takes 90 minutes. From there it’s a 40-minute drive to the Taj Exotica Resort & Spa (doubles from $373), which the hotel can arrange.
Our trip was organized by Wild Frontiers (seven nights from $1,785). Founded by India specialist Jonny Bealby (44-020-8741-7390; email@example.com) — a member of the A-List, Travel + Leisure’s collection of the world’s top travel advisors — this tour operator offers custom trips throughout the continent, with the option for an Andamans extension.