First in a series on World Tea Tours’ Tea Tour of Sri Lanka, India, and Nepal.
Imagine journeying to the most renown tea regions on the Indian subcontinent—the tea lover’s equivalent to a devout Muslim’s haj. This past October, Dan Robertson, owner of The Tea House and World Tea Tours, did just that, leading a tea tour of Sri Lanka, India, and Nepal that most tea enthusiasts would jump at. After four days in Sri Lanka – which will be the subject of a future post – Dan and his stalwart group of teashop owners, writers, artists, and tea enthusiasts boarded the only flight from Colombo to the southern Indian city of Coimbatore, the second largest city in the state of Tamil Nadu. Upon their arrival, Dan and his cohorts were met by tea-industry escorts and rugged four-wheel-drive vehicles, which whisked them to the often-overlooked tea gardens in the nearby Nilgiris District. In fact, for Dan, the trip to the fabulous tea gardens of the Nilgiri, or Blue Mountains, was a first.
The Nilgiri tea gardens are best known for their black teas, much of which are used for CTC production. However, silver tips, golden tips, white teas, and even green teas also hail from this region. All Nilgiri teas are known for their full body and brisk flavor. Their first evening, the group was entertained at a reception by the Nilgiri Planters Association organized by Bob Naik. The next morning, though, it was time to hit the first tea garden, the Glendale Estate, where the group was welcomed with leis of the most fragrant fresh tea leaves they had ever smelled and given a very detailed explanation of the tea-making process. But certainly one of the highlights of the group’s visit to the Nilgiris District was a trek to the highest tea estate in India, the Korakundah Estate. There the group toured the gardens and factory, which produce exclusively organic teas. A warm welcome was also extended by the Chamraj Estate and the group enjoyed a sumptuous dinner at the home of Estate Manager Gerard Pinto. Another excursion in the Nilgiris District took Dan and his fellow tea lovers to the region’s oldest tea garden, the Thiashola (“mother of the forest”) Estate, established by the British and first cultivated by Chinese prisoners of war captured during the Opium Wars. Besides the formal tea tastings at the various estates, both to and from the Nilgiris District, the entire party enjoyed made-to-order masala chai at a roadside stand.
After a couple of days in the Blue Mountains, the World Tea Tours group headed back to Coimbatore to catch a flight to Kolkata, better known as Calcutta. Although many Westerners associate Calcutta with abject poverty, this group’s impression of the city was shaped by an elegant afternoon tea at the five-star Taj Bengal. The production, though beautiful, was curiously flawed, however, by some glaring mistakes and misinformation on the menu.
In the afternoon of the fourth day, after a brief stay in Calcutta, the group boarded a flight to Siliguri, the tea trading city at the base of Darjeeling. Upon their arrival, Dan and his fellow tea travelers were the focus of a daunting press conference. Thereafter, they were taught a bit about the business side of tea by Ankit and Rajiv Lochan of Lochan Tea Ltd., a major tea trader. The duo even arranged for the group to attend a tea auction and participate in the bidding, making the group the first Westerners to do so. Wrapping up their stay in Siliguri was a visit to the J. Thomas and Company Tea Brokers office, where everyone received some instruction in professional tea tasting.
After leaving Siliguri, the group traveled on to Darjeeling, with some of the highest-elevation tea gardens in the world. Among many memorable events in Darjeeling was a cocktail hour at the well-known Margaret’s Hope Estate. Then it was early to bed for a pre-dawn trip the next morning to the small provincial town of Pelling, from which it is possible to see the first light hit the majestic Mt. Kanchenjunga, part of the Himalayan mountain range that includes Mt. Everest. As an added bonus, the group toured the cottage that stands on the spot that once belonged to Dr. Archibald Campbell, planter of the first tea plants in the area in the 1830s. To their delight, the group discovered that some of the original plants still remain.