There are a few places in Siliguri and Darjeeling that are perfect for a sighting of the majestic Kanchenjunga peak. And if there’s one spot in all of Darjeeling that allows for a spectacular view of the peak and where you’d want to be to see and enjoy it from, it has to be the Glenburn Boutique Hotel.
A very famous estate, Glenburn is a producer of fine Darjeeling teas. In the last decade and a half, however, it’s been the bungalow – converted into a hotel – that has grown into a Darjeeling institution of sorts.
We caught up with Husna-Tara Prakash, whose family own Glenburn, and who is the force behind the Glenburn Hotel.
I first visited Glenburn in 2001. My father-in-law had just bought the estate and on New Year’s Day, he said, ‘It’s ours from today so we need to spend the night there.’ The airport in Bagdogra was closed for renovation and the trains were full. So, he, my husband Anshuman and I got into our car and drove up from Calcutta to Glenburn.
There was never an idea to set up a hotel. I knew nothing about hospitality or running a hotel. I’m more of an academic, a Science teacher by profession. But we wanted to market Glenburn differently. Our estates in Assam were a different story – the summer flush Golden Tips found an easy export market and the CTC year-round production, a strong domestic market. But Darjeeling was different. And Glenburn is a beautiful place. So we decided to make a movie on why Glenburn was special, and use that as a visiting card to sell our tea. A dear school friend in Delhi agreed to direct it, and we requested Tom Alter, a fellow Woodstock School alumnas to star in it. During the shoot, there was a lot of discussion on how beautiful Glenburn could easily be developed as a tourist destination.
Glenburn is spread across 1600 acres, 600 of which is for tea while the other 1000 remains forest. We also have two rivers that border the property. So, our first thought was to develop something by the river. We were thinking of tented accommodation, as that was quite the rage at the time.
I am a keen horse rider and soon after we made the film, I was in Delhi competing in a horse show and I started investigating the idea of tents. One day, my riding instructor asked me where I kept disappearing off to every now and then. I told him about Glenburn and my search for luxury tents for the proposed riverside plans. He promptly introduced me to Bronwyn Latif, whose daughter Chloe was a fellow rider. Bronwyn had worked on a couple of luxury tent projects in Rajasthan.
My meeting with Bronwyn was really the turning point in the Glenburn story. An Australian living in Delhi, having stopped off in India about 30 years ago with her British-born husband, Salim while they were travelling from Greece to Australia to “settle down and do something serious”. Her house, where we met, was as interesting as she was. And when I told her my plans and that I’d like her to take up the project, she said it was a bad idea and we shouldn’t do it, effectively talking herself out of a job. Darjeeling, she said, had too much rain, and tents by the riverside would be a nightmare to maintain. `Think log cabins perhaps?’ she suggested.
While we talked over a cup of tea, an old friend called her, who coincidently had visited Glenburn many years ago, and she also showed me an invite to the screening of a film about a giant Buddha statue on a tea estate that I laughingly explained was located on a hill across the valley from us. When something has to happen…..signs come from many magical places!
So, I discussed this with the family and we hired an architect to work on some plans and invited her to come up to Darjeeling for a visit. A month later, she was there and we were looking at the plans. Some 60 odd cabins spread across the forest, with restaurants and a volleyball court. My husband Anshuman, Bronwyn and I looked at each other in dismay. It was not at all what we had envisioned. So we returned to the bungalow….for another cup of tea, with our tails between our legs.
The Manager’s Bungalow had recently been vacated when the Manager we had selected to run Glenburn didn’t actually join us. So we had a Deputy Manager, who was already resident at Glenburn and didn’t want to move to The Burra Bungalow.
As we sat there, drinking tea, Bronwyn sensibly advised us not to waste any money down by the river. Why don’t you do something here, she suggested, pointing to the bungalow. It was in quite a bad state. But more importantly, there were only four rooms. But she said, just try converting these four rooms and if it works, great. If not, it will still be a beautiful home you can enjoy.
What do you need? I asked her. A demolition squad, she replied.
The bungalow had walls that were painted pistachio green. It’s beautiful features were hidden under plywood panels. The fireplace was covered by ugly river rocks. The curtains were synthetic. We wanted to restore it to its original glory, going back maybe a century, perhaps more. So we started to strip. And there were several layers to get through.
You see, because Glenburn belonged to a huge tea company that owned 52 estates, every 3 years, there was a new manager and his wife who moved into the bungalow. And the Burra Memsahib would come in, and want to change something here, paint something there… there were layers and layers of personality we had to get through.
We stripped it back to the bare bones of the bungalow and then we started building it up again.
The first time we painted the verandah, Bronwyn made us sit there in the evening over a drink. The next morning, she said she was going to change the color because everyone’s skin looked dull against that color, and no one looked happy against it. ‘I want a colour that’s going to reflect happiness and cheer’, she said. And so my lessons in how to be obsessive about every possible detail began.
We changed the curtains and Bronwyn ensured the lining of the curtain was as beautiful on the outside, as it was on the inside, so when you walk along the verandahs, it didn’t look like the ugly curtain lining. It had to look beautiful. Everything from the chairs to the table cloths, the windows, the fireplace… everything was thoughtfully planned.
It took us six months of working hard and obsessively. We’d begin at daybreak and end only hours later, often still in our pyjamas. We played Bollywood music to help the workers paint faster, and we joined them painting and polishing wherever we could.
By the end of the year we were ready with our four rooms, and guests were starting to visit. During the summer, I visited my parents who live in England. While there I met travel agents and told them about Glenburn. I talked about the similar experience one might get when visiting a vineyard: you taste the teas, learn about the local community, and the 4000 families that live there. They liked the story, realised I was genuinely passionate about our little creation, and slowly word started to spread that it was worth a visit.
The following year, we had a group of international journalists visit us. They put us into the Tatler Travel Guide for Best 101 hotels of the world. That came as a big surprise. We didn’t think of ourselves as a hotel with our four rooms. But they thought it wonderful, and that the experience was real and authentic. There was nothing staged. Every member of the staff came from – and still do – the villages around here.
They especially enjoyed the attention to detail, the bungalow, and of course the views, and the amazing service our staff were providing. That’s what made us take it seriously.
I spent the next few years visiting more and more travel agents. People started booking a year in advance and still struggled to get a room in some months. That’s when we thought we should add more rooms. We had originally wanted to retain two rooms for the family to stay in when they visited on work, as often even my father in law couldn’t get a room to stay in when he visited. So we spent the next year building a second bungalow, with the same obsessive detail, and we became an 8-room hotel, with the two rooms that should have been reserved for the family also getting absorbed into it as the demand was so high!
I don’t think we will ever expand to more than this. We could, but the experience just won’t be as intimate. Every night all our guests sit around the dining table…there could be people from 9 or 10 nationalities dining together. Culture, politics, travel experiences… the conversation goes on and on some nights. This just can’t happen if there are more guests.
The hotel is very much a core part of the tea estate. The Glenburn hotel has only been possible because of the community here. I couldn’t do this anywhere else. Bikram Mukhia was the original gardener at Glenburn. His daughter, Sarala, has been my children’s nanny for 10 years now. His son, Bhim, manages our accounts. His granddaughter Luna runs the shop at Glenburn, his grandson Sabin is one of our senior staff… there’s a continuity over generations…Ranjan is one of our senior bearers. He is a fourth generation Glenburn resident. He’s doing so well that he even conducts tea tours in fluent English.
Our staff have kitchen gardens where they grow cardamom and oranges. We help them market their crops when we can, and we hope to expand this effort further. We have teachers coming from Darjeeling to teach the children music and dance. Through our guests, we started an education sponsorship program for the children. There are 46 children attending private schools in the region, and our estate primary schools, although run by the government, are supported by extra teachers we pay salaries for, and Nursery and Kindergarten classes that are not part of the government curriculum.
For me, it’s not so much the bungalow as a physical entity, it’s the generations and community of people that are a part of it. We want them to be proud of what Glenburn is and what they have achieved. They can offer a cuisine that’s internationally reputed, and talked about. When someone asks me where our chefs are from, I say, Balukhop village, just up the path going up the hill. And that’s just how it’s got to be.
Photographs by Neha Bindal