Just for fun, I'm going to write this report about two very charming resorts, one in Kalimpong, the other in Gangtok, in reverse order. Starting with my flight back to Delhi, I was thrilled to find that my request for a seat on the right side of the aircraft yielded a glimpse of the superstars of the mountaineering world, Everest and Kanchenjunga. The famous summits peeked just above the dense white blanket of clouds that covered the earth from horizon to horizon. If the captain had not announced their presence in the “two o'clock position facing the front of the aircraft,” I'd have missed them altogether — so thank you, Jet Airways! That was a fitting end to a delightful trip.
Six hours had passed since I had scrambled aboard the yellow Maruti van taxi to make the white-knuckle journey from Gangtok down to the plains, following the sinuous course of the turbulent Teesta. My friendly, talkative driver Mani, a Nepali living in Sikkim, told me that landslides might add anything upto three days of impassable roads during the monsoon. Fortunately, we made it to the airport with no mishaps.
We had left the Hidden Forest Retreat at 5.30 that morning in order to ward off possible delays along the way. Despite the early hour, proprietor Kesang Lachumpa was on hand to see me off, with a cup of tea and assurances that I'd make it to the airport on time. While her parents help out by receiving guests and showing them around the three-acre property built around a nursery, the responsibility of running the 10-room guesthouse rests primarily on young and pretty Kesang's capable shoulders. A graduate of horticulture, she's been running the resort since 2003, having started it at the urging of friends who recognised a good opportunity when they saw one.
The property is arranged in tiers high above the valley of Gangtok. The resort perches on a hill which curves around to the left so that the city's built-up area is displayed like a stack of property cards in a game of 3D Monopoly. But the 10 rooms currently available for guests face the front view, with its terraced slopes of rice paddy on the flanks of rugged, heavily forested hills. Kesang's father, Sonam Lachumpa, is a senior official with the Forestry Department. Thirty years ago, he began the nursery which continues to be the heart of the guesthouse, with orchids as their star attraction. The best time of year for flower-viewing is spring, but even in August there are orchids waiting to ambush the unwary visitor all around the estate, while potted begonias glow hot pink and crimson, deep violet and scarlet, all the way from the entrance to the dining room.
On the morning of my two-night stay, Mrs Lachumpa took me around for a quick tour of the nursery. Hundreds of tiny green shoots poked up out of plastic pouches arranged in neat rows inside the nursery's sprouting sheds. “Cattleya... Cattleya... Phalaenopsis...,” she said, as she pointed, naming the different orchid species as if they were pets rather than plants. “And that one, when it grows, will have the long, curling streamers...” she said, as her hands described the flower's lateral petals flowing like ringlets. In season, a solid bank of lady's slippers, in colours ranging from mauve to lime green, greet incoming guests. “Everyone takes pictures!” says Kesang, smiling. “They tell me they've never seen so many in one place"In the afternoon, at my request, Kesang took me to Rumtek Monastery, 45 minutes away by car. I was very touched that she'd been thoughtful enough to bring two white scarves, one for each of us, to offer at the main altar. I'm not at all religious but if I had to believe in something, Himalayan Buddhism would probably be my first choice. The air of serenity at Rumtek, and at the brand-new Lingdum Monastery, 15 minutes away, invites contemplation even in flabby out-of-shape city-slickers like me. Climbing up the steep path to Rumtek turned my lungs into wheezing concertinas, but the discomfort was forgotten once we reached the imposing yet austere inner courtyard. I bought butter-lamps to light for my mother and felt a sense of deep privilege when a kindly young monk allowed us into the chamber of the golden stupa, to make three ambulations around it.
The guestrooms at the Hidden Forest are clean and self-contained, with polished wooden parquet floors. All the rooms are equipped for two occupants, with twin beds and attached bathrooms. There's a TV in each room but no telephone and no room service other than morning tea. Meals are served in a bright airy dining room and guests are asked what their food preferences are, with homemade Sikkimese cuisine as the default. On my first night for instance, I had a soup flavoured with home-grown kaffir lime leaf, lightly curried churpi (Tibetan-style cottage cheese), curried bamboo shoots and a mustard-leaf broth. The second night, when photographer Saibal Das was also on hand, Kesang offered us a main dish of soup made with plump little wontons that she'd folded herself. On request, Kesang will also arrange a taste of the Himalayan liquor called chhang, made from fermented millet and served warm. I'd tried chhang many years ago in Bhutan, but never before had it been served to me in wooden 'pipes', with bamboo straws stuck into the russet-brown grain heaped up above the rim. Kesang's pipes were heirlooms made of dark wood, about 10cm in diameter with two broad silver bracelets clasped around them as decoration.
I had journeyed up to Gangtok from Kalimpong the previous afternoon, leaving Saibal behind to take photographs. I spent much of the two-and-a-half-hour ride feeling regretful that my stay at the Orchid Retreat had been so short. The estate belongs to the Pradhan family, whose silver-haired patriarch, Ganesh Mani Pradhan, ran a successful nursery export business for 20 years before his son Mahendra married a determined young woman called Honey.
“I was newly married,” says Honey, who still appears to be as petite and fragile as any of the orchids growing in their hothouses, “when my father-in-law suggested that we should rent our two existing guest-cottages to visitors. I took it on as a challenge.” That was 12 years ago. Since then, the guest facilities have expanded to 10 cabins, each self-contained with en-suite bathrooms and little sit-outs facing the lush greenery all around. Honey continues to be fully engaged in the day-to-day running of the resort and smiles as she tells us that holidays with her two young daughters are only possible from June to September, during the rains. Yet it's clear that she's happily devoted to the work, buzzing in and out of the kitchen, sitting with guests as they eat, and ensuring everyone feels comfortable.
Tours of the nursery are usually led by Mahen. Scarlet wreaths of heliconia and bright golden birds-of-paradise light our way through the mist-enwreathed slopes, with tall palms and ornamental banana trees creating an enchanted-jungle atmosphere. Bromeliads with brilliant magenta hearts line the paths and in the greenhouse I was quite awestruck to encounter my first lady's slipper orchid, a deep maroon beauty who posed for the camera like a film-star at a photo-op, complete with tiny tufts of hair growing along her two lateral petals!
The food at Orchid Retreat is unusual and tasty, with Honey constantly experimenting with local produce to invent healthful combinations. For lunch, for instance, just before I left for Gangtok, we had cucumber cooked in a peanut sauce alongside rice, chicken and curried fiddlehead ferns. The previous night, following my chance query about the Assamese chilli known as 'bhut jholakia', recently named the world's hottest pepper, Honey brought out a paste she'd made from it. I don't especially like hot food but I've been so curious about this one, that I placed a pin-head-sized portion on my tongue. I was rewarded with a jolt of pure white light, as if I'd bitten into an electric cable rather than a vegetable. Awesome.
The drive up from Bagdogra airport took perhaps three-and-a-half hours with one short halt in between for tea. The road quality ranged from bumpy to very bumpy, so anyone with loose fillings in their teeth had best ensure that their taxi has excellent shock absorbers. The Orchid Retreat routinely sends vehicles to meet incoming guests. The Hidden Forest can arrange taxis for guests who are willing to pay the two-way fare, which comes to about Rs 3,000, but according to Kesang the taxi-services at the airport are perfectly reliable.
My flight from Delhi took two hours, arriving in Bagdogra a little before 12. I found the pleasant young driver, Pradip, standing outside with a name-board for me and Saibal. I handed my luggage to Pradip then went back inside the airport building to the restaurant on the first floor to await Saibal's arrival from Calcutta two hours later.
Both resorts make a point of saying that they don't take walk-in guests and that they try to ensure that the atmosphere remains always tranquil. While there are treks to go on and the Kanchenjunga view-point a half-hour from Gangtok, I would say that the warm hospitality of the proprietors combined with the enchanting locations are what make the experience unforgettable.
Getting there: Bagdogra is the closest airport, with sturdy taxis available for hire. One-way costs are approx. Rs 1,200 for 70km to/from Kalimpong, Rs 1,500 for the 124km to/from Gangtok. The closest railway stations are Siliguri or New Jalpaiguri.
The Orchid Retreat in Kalimpong offers 10 cottages from Rs 1,400/2,000 (single/double), with no extra charge for children up to six. There's no room service except for morning tea. Breakfast costs Rs 150, lunch and dinner Rs 250. Alcohol/aerated drinks are not served, but guests are free to bring their own. Free conveyance to/from Bagdogra airport. The management does not organise treks but is very helpful with suggestions. The resort has a small library of books and plentiful bird/orchid/moth species to observe in the 2.5 acres of lushly wooded estate, beautiful south-facing vistas from every cottage. CONTACT 03552-274517, 274275, 9832094555, www.theorchidretreat.com
The Hidden Forest Retreat in Gangtok offers a range of residency plans starting with the single-occupancy, no-meals European Plan at Rs 1,300 to the double occupancy, all-meals American Plan for Rs 2,500. Extra beds are available for Rs 500, with no charge for children below six. There are TVs in every room, but no room service. The owners are friendly, and happy to show guests around the estate and to suggest visits to nearby monasteries and treks in the surrounding mountains. CONTACT 03592-205197, 203196, 9434137409, www.hiddenforestretreat.com