If you have ever balked at the notion of a long Indian road trip with small children – but nevertheless longed to get back to the good old days of the open Asian overland trails - the Rajdhani Express train from Delhi to Darjeeling might be just the easy, family-friendly adventure you are seeking.
Though it takes some 26-or-so hours (including a decent night’s sleep onboard) for the train to forge its way across the hinterlands of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, en route from India’s chaotic capital to the junction town of New Jalpaiguri, booking berths in a 'First Class AC' cabin allows you to watch middle India laze by from the simple comfort of your own small bunk bed-equipped compartment. Freshly made food (curries, rice, dhal and chapattis) arrives in tray form on your lap every four hours or so; station stops provide the opportunity to stock up with samosas, chai (tea) and bunches of bananas. With enough colouring books, games, and perhaps a portable DVD player and a good supply of Disney, parents can feel they are truly back in the realm of backpacker travel, without the attendant perils of India’s creaking ancient buses.
Arriving in New Jalpaiguri, it is still a three hour drive up to the Himalayan tea plantation of Darjeeling, spread out alluringly along a steep mountain ridge. Alternatively, the voyage can also be undertaken (by the indomitable family) by a seven-hour ride on Darjeeling’s famous 'toy train,' along tracks so tightly squeezed between the lanes of mountain villages that residents must take in their washing-lines to allow the train to puff by. If, however, life on the rails has begun to lose some of its lustre, arrange for a stay at Glenburn Tea Estate, an idyllic working tea plantation an hour’s drive from Darjeeling. If you do, you will find yourself and your weary charges picked up by a uniformed driver, escorted to a comfortable jeep, and whisked up into the hills in style.
The road to Glenburn, with its sweeping vistas of the West Bengal hills, becomes even more appealing at halfway point, when the driver makes a stop at a particularly scenic vantage point and begins assembling a picnic. Finger sandwiches, chocolate cake, and tea in china cups are all lovingly unpacked and distributed; after several doses of that railway dhal and rice, most children thrill to the appearance of egg salad triangles. Then, after the last crumbs of cake have been swept away, the journey continues through colourful mountain towns, lush scenery and past dozens of gurgling waterfalls.
If you opt to stay in Darjeeling itself, a good bet with children is the historic Windamere Hotel, whose hallowed halls have echoed to the patter of tiny feet for some eighty years, and whose white-gloved staff is oblivious to – or even enlivened by – screams, crashes and uncontrollable giggles. Explore historic Buddhist pagodas and gompas, take the little ones for a pony ride up on The Mall, visit the Himalayan Zoo and Tensing Norgay’s memorial site (stop off for a steaming plate of Tibetan momo dumplings – a childhood hit - at the nearby café ). Early risers should climb Tiger Hill for a spectacular sunrise; lunch alongside legions of neat uniformed schoolchildren at historic Glenary’s café, then– with older children – hit the Teesta River for a spot of white water rafting.
Staying at Glenburn, meanwhile, your family’s arrival warrants the brewing-up of the perfect pot of Darjeeling tea, taken on the veranda of the estate’s gorgeous Victorian bungalow. Stay in the family sized Kanchenjunga Suite with views out to the mighty mountain itself, and let the little ones play on the lawn as you relax in a steaming hot bath. Later, after a quick tour of the plantation’s tea factory, the children can eat in al fresco style with dishes served just to their taste and linen napkins to mop up spillages. Then, after the last bedtime story has been read, their parents dine on the good china with other guests in the grand candlelit dining room.
And if you are keen to tweak your Darjeeling experience to become the ultimate in family comfort, you can opt, on your return, to forsake the stalwart Rajdhani Express and fly back to Delhi from Bagdogra. Opt to travel with Kingfisher Airlines and you will be treated to live satellite TV, good food, and cabin attendants who are happy to whisk your little ones off for a tour of the galley, allowing you to enjoy just one final refreshing cup of Darjeeling tea before the maelstrom of the big city begins anew.