Steeped in Adventure
|Nimble Hands: Tending to the tea crops in the Kangra Valley (Toby Gohn)|
When the word chai comes to mind, most envision the milky, sweet drink sipped throughout India by nearly everyone, from elderly village women draped in brightly colored saris to hardened truckers stopping at roadside chai-wallahs to young businesspeople in their booming Internet workplaces—not to mention the hordes of Starbucks-goers across the globe. And, since much of the chai—"tea" in Hindi—consumed in India resembles that milky spiced beverage, it is easy to forget that the country is also known for producing high quality full-leaf teas, savored by tea aficionados throughout the world and enjoyed in a way that best captures the natural flavors: black, without milk or sugar.
The eastern Darjeeling and Assam regions of India may be internationally synonymous with tea cultivation, but logistics make visiting them something of a trial for the travel-weary tea enthusiast. Darjeeling lies far from Delhi and Mumbai, the typical international gateway cities to India, and the Assam region is steeped in years-long rebel-government violence. But there's another option. Head north to the verdant realm of the Kangra Valley, nestled in the Dhauladhar Mountains of Himachal Pradesh. Not only will you gain insight into the complexity of the tea industry, but you'll sample a variety available almost exclusively in a region that's just as noteworthy for its rich natural and anthropological beauty as it is for its brew. And, to fully appreciate the diverse qualities of the Kangra Valley, there's only one choice: the Country Cottage, a small resort nestled in the green confines of the Chandpur Tea Estate.
Navin Sarin, the charismatic, humble man who owns the resort and plantation (and lives there with his family), greets all visitors to the 20-year-old Country Cottage, the first gesture in his continuous effort to make the visit a true experience, as opposed to simply a guesthouse stay. This personalized approach is echoed in the cottage's intimate and peaceful atmosphere. With only three cottages and two huts, the Sarin family has intentionally kept expansion at the Country Cottage to a minimum, yet they are constantly improving and increasing the guest services and activities.
A stay at the Country Cottage can be as adventurous or relaxing as you desire. Wake up at sunrise and stroll through the tea gardens, eyes alert for yellow-billed magpies, paradise flycatchers, and lime-green parakeets. Eat a hearty breakfast of locally-grown fruits and vegetables in the company of a few likeminded travelers, then go for a hike amidst yawning gorges and indigenous villages, or embark on a fishing trip organized by Navin. In the late afternoon, stop by the tea factory on the other side of town, where the manager will walk you through the process of obtaining, drying, rolling, separating, and distributing Kangra tea. Then return to the Country Cottage in the evening, sit down to a home-cooked Indian dinner, and relax on the back porch of your cottage with a pot of fresh tea as the sun drops behind the tea gardens, the pear trees exploding in white blossoms. If you're lucky, you may even spot one of the leopards that have been known to pass through the premises at dusk.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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