Reviewed by Victoria
Why you’ll love the Windamere Hotel
Located near the top of Observatory Hill in Darjeeling, this friendly heritage hotel – a cluster of pale yellow bungalows – was originally established as a boarding house for British tea planters in the 1880s. Today, it still retains much of its old-world charm and serves as an ideal base to explore The Queen of The Hills as well as a welcome pit stop for families travelling to Glenburn – another globetotting favourite.
Overlooking Kanchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world on one side and the Chowrasta (the town’s ‘piazza’) to another, The Windamere’s advantageous location meant it was the place to stay in the days of the Raj, and continued to be for much of the 20th century. Fifty years ago, you might have found yourself dining alongside Sir Edmund Hilary before he set off on one of his pre-Everest expeditions and, judging from the photos in some of the old scrapbooks, it looked quite the party scene in the sixties.
Today The Windamere still prides itself on creating a homely ambiance where guests can congregate by the fire and swap travel tales over a cup of fine Darjeeling tea and slice of Victoria sponge cake. Train enthusiasts will particularly enjoy The DHR Club (Darjeeling Himalayan Railway Club), a small room in The Snuggery wing dedicated to, as UNESCO describes it, “the first and still the most outstanding” example of hill passenger railway.
We visited in late November and highlights for us included the open coal fires in the bedrooms, the hot water bottles slipped between our sheets whilst we were having dinner and the bed tea, from one of the region’s finest plantations, served with a smile in the mornings.
Why the kids will love it
It was the location of the hotel that most appealed to my children (aged 6 & 4 years). The three-hour drive to/from the airport is considerably more fun (for everyone) when there are wild elephants lumbering across the roads, toy trains chugging alongside you, spectacular mountain views and plenty of roadside activity to inspire several rounds of I-spy.
In Darjeeling itself, Windamere is just a couple of minutes drive from the Himalayan Zoological Park. Don’t make the mistake I nearly made and assume it’s just a dreary hill station zoo housing little more than a handful of sorry-looking goats. It turned out to be the highlight of our trip and great fun for all ages. In the Chowrasta, directly behind the hotel, children can take pony rides around the square – another memorable experience for them.
The breakfasts in the sun-filled dining room also scored highly, thanks to a menu offering hot chocolate, homemade marmalade muffins, French toast and pancakes, amongst other delectable treats. Afternoon tea came a close second, with scones and jam, cakes and biscuits, all to be enjoyed whilst chatting merrily away (some might say cross-examining) with other guests.
Big kids and teens will totally impress their classmates back home with their newly acquired tea palate and sophisticated teatime rituals. Would you like Castleton or Makaibari with your scone, mate?
The 40 rooms are distributed over several buildings, which fall into two wings:
Wing 1: Ada Villa
Built in the late 1880s, this was the original boarding house and today comprises of various parts:
The main building – located opposite the dining room and reception area – houses 6 colonial suites (all interconnecting double and single rooms with shared bathroom) as well as the communal sitting rooms and bar area. A Room Called Alice – the only single room – can also be found in this building.
The Pepper Cottage on the main terrace has a great view of the mountains and has an adjoining twin bed suite – Peppers – that can be reserved on its own or in addition to the Pepper Cottage.
Forget-Me-Not, also known as the Honeymoon Suite, is also accessed from the main terrace via a tight spiral staircase leading down to a large suite beneath the main dining room. Whilst it has some of the best views on the property, it is the one of the three rooms not to have a fireplace (the other two are the single Colonial suites)
The Annexe: This long building – also part of the original estate – houses several more colonial suites (doubles or twins but no interconnecting rooms) and the in-house spa. The Annexe is accessed via the back gate on the terrace.
Behind the annex and slightly further up Observatory Hill sits The Tinkerbell Cottage, a standalone bungalow which includes 1 bedroom (with kingsize bed), 2 sitting rooms (both with TVs), 2 bathrooms and a small kitchen. In front of the cottage is a small, private playground, which other hotel guests can also use (if they know of it’s existence, that is).
Wing 2: The Snuggery
The Snuggery wing overlooks the Chowrasta (town square) and includes three modern buildings that are still in keeping with the rest of the property.
Hill Charm Cottage: This standalone one-bedroom cottage overlooks the town of Darjeeling (as opposed to the mountain range) and was under renovation when we visited.
Annandale House, a two-storey building, houses a handful of double or twin bedded rooms, all with televisions and Victoria bathtubs.
Observatory House, also two-storeys, has slightly bigger rooms than those in the Annadale, although the bathtubs are smaller.
All rooms are furnished with comfortable single or double beds and decorated with busy floral printed bedspreads that my granny would have loved! Behind the matching curtains (that, incidentally, don’t quite stretch the full width of the window) lie lacy net curtains and the floor is mostly covered by an assortment of rugs. Paintings and photos – both old and new – of Darjeeling and its key sights are dotted over the walls. The key feature of every room is the open fireplace – lit every evening before dinner (seasonal) although portable radiators are also provided, if preferred. There are no fans or air conditioning units as there is no need for these in the summer months.
Victorian bathtubs (or varying sizes and condition) always feel rather luxurious, and we found hot water supplies to be plentiful (we stayed in The Observatory house).
Best rooms for families: A maximum of 2 children (up to the age of 12) can be accommodated in the same room, but only 1 extra bed is permitted per room, with the exception of The Tinkerbell Cottage and two Superior Rooms in the Observatory House which can accommodate 2 extra beds.
Tinkerbell Cottage, set back from the main house and Snuggery, is ideal for families who require a little more privacy. It accommodates 2 extra beds and has a small children’s playground in addition to it’s own sit out area. If you are staying in Tinkerbell Cottage, you may cook your own food in the ensuite kitchen.
The Colonial Suites in the main house are a good option for families with two children wanting to sleep in the same room as they comprise of one double room with an interconnecting single room. They also allow 1 extra bed. A baby monitor is likely to stretch between these rooms and the communal sitting rooms where afternoon tea is served.
Note that, with the exception of bed tea, room service is not available, and neither is babysitting. Families with small children must eat together in the dining room or, if you can’t keep them awake, take it in turn to eat / babysit! It is unlikely that a baby monitor will stretch from any of the rooms to the dining room.
Food: All meals are included in the rates and are served in the yellow, sun-filled dining room overlooking the Himalayan foothills. Menus are fixed and are printed out daily on illustrated cards. I caught sight of an old, faded menu card in a display cabinet from 1962 that used the same illustrations as they do today. If The Windamere had a slogan it might be ‘Where time stands still’.
The food is served at your table, and the day begins with a continental breakfast of fruits, cereals, eggs to order, pancakes or French toast and the omnipresent cup of Darjeeling (coffee aficionados will be relieved to hear that filtered coffee is also available).
Lunch is a five course affair starting with vegetable soup such as watercress or asparagus, followed by a hearty dollop of British cuisine (the lentil shepherds pie with sautéed cabbage was a favourite), followed by an Indian main course of dal, jeera rice, kadhai chicken, jara dum and parathas, followed by (providing you can still move) dessert.
Your stomach is allowed a couple of hours to recover before Afternoon Tea is served by the fire in ‘Daisy’s Music Room’. This traditional spread, offered to guests since 1939, includes cakes, scones and jam, sandwiches and biscuits to enjoy with your cuppa.
Entering the dining room for dinner gave me a bit of a shock. It had been transformed into a surprisingly romantic, candle-lit space with an open fire that is worth dressing up for. The fixed menu offers another 5 courses (again, a mix of international and Indian cuisines) and ‘Hits from the forties’ (with gramophone sound effects) fill the room – I almost found myself asking my 6-year old if she would care to foxtrot.
For Kids: There is no kids’ menu, although there was plenty on the menu for my fussy eaters to choose from. Meal times are fixed and although they told me that they can be flexible for children, plenty of noticed is required.
Activities for Parents: An in-house spa offers wonderful massages, in town there is the Lloyd Botanic Garden and the popular Rock Garden, the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute within the zoo complex (which has a section dedicated to Everest mountaineers), and several Buddhist monasteries and temples. A visit to Tiger Hill to watch the sun rise over Mt Kanchenjungha is a high point for many travellers (be warned, it’s a 4am start!).
Activities for Kids: Pony rides around the Chowrasta (for little kids), the excellent zoo, rides on the Toy Train – considered to be one of the best train rides in the world, tea plantation tours, afternoon tea and cakes at The Windamere and picnics by Senchal Lake.
common rooms, cots, doctor on call, nearest hospital is The Planters Hospital, 1 extra bed per room, inter-connecting rooms, laundry service, pushchair friendly, wheelchair access, WiFi.
When to go:
Darjeeling is best enjoyed between September and early June. Autumn (September to November) is a beautiful time to visit, just after the rains finish and when the countryside is wrapped in beautiful shades of green. Winter (December to January) is cold with average temperatures of around 5 – 7C; minimum temperatures can fall below freezing. February marks the start of Spring and Summer begins in April bringing with it daytime temperatures of 25C. This is one of the most popular times to visit Darjeeling and it also coincides with the start of the tea production season when tea gardens are open to the public.
The monsoon rains arrive in July accompanied by torrential downpours. Autumn and Spring are often the best times for clear mountain views. Christmas: Windamere prides itself on hosting high-spirited Christmas extravaganzas and if their photo albums are anything to go by, they don’t celebrate it in half measures. Performers from New York’s Broadway and London’s West End provide the entertainment and many guests book a year in advance. This year Jazz singer Laura Brunner will lead the show.
Location & Travel:
Windamere is located near the top of Observatory Hill in Darjeeling. It is approx 3 hours drive from the airport. The hotel can arrange transfers for an additional fee. Darjeeling is in the foothills of the Himalayas, and at an altitude of 7,500 feet (2286), so expect windy, bumpy roads in parts. Children (or adults) easily prone to car sickness should be prepared. Altitude sickness is rare at this height.
1) If you have little children, they will love the pony rides around the square in the evenings.
2) The zoo is worth a visit and makes for a easy pushchair-walk. Within the zoo is the Himalayan Museum which we enjoyed as well.
3) The toy train is very scenic but very slow (and very loud!). Little kids may get restless. When the train was parked momentarily at the Batasia Loop we asked the driver if there were any spare seats to take us to the next stop (approx 15 minutes ride) and we were lucky! My understanding is that it is not possible to book short rides otherwise.