Guten-free Darjeeling

Stuck in Darjeeling: Gluten-Free Eats & Himalayan Views

Darjeeling is a strange place—not quite Indian, not quite British and not quite Nepali (not to mention anything of the smorgasbord of other cultures and nationalities who also call Darjeeling’s lushly forested hills home). It came off to me as India’s version of a ski resort town without the ski slopes. It’s fairly westernized and a bit too commercial for my taste but you can find anything you need here, there’s great food, coffee and of course, tea and it’s pretty comfortable living as far as India goes. It was a nice place to escape to from the blazing pre-monsoon heat of the Indian plains. I spent a few weeks here trekking, writing, reading and resting but didn’t really find it a compelling destination on it’s own. However if you find yourself in this funky hill town here’s a few places in Darjeeling I’d recommend:

Sonam’s Kitchen
The best place in town for breakfast. Large western-style set breakfasts (hash browns, thick slices of buttered toast, veggie-packed omelettes, fried eggs, french toast, grilled tomatoes, etc.), good filter coffee (a rarity in India), and a large collection of used books make this a popular hub for travelers and trekkers. You can find this joint and a few other breakfast and coffee joints on the back street (Dr. Zakir Hussain Rd) that connects to the main square called Chowrasta (if you arrive at Chowrasta via the main street turn right and take the backstreet that leads away from Chowrasta)

Himalayan Java
The best coffee in town (they make a very good Americano) although a bit expensive. They also have fast internet which is why you’ll also find a lot of travelers hanging out here. Next to Pizza Hut and across from Hasty Tasty on Nehru Road (the main street leading up to Chowrasta).

Hasty Tasty
Delicious, fresh and fast Indian food. They have a huge vegetarian menu and the flavors here are outstanding. I recommend their masala dosa and their chana masala. It’s across from Himalayan Java on Nehru Road.

Mistyck Mountain Cafe
A little known (and poorly spelled) cafe up the hill out of town that makes delicious home-style food. It’s cheap and the woman who runs it is really sweet. I ate here at least once most days and when I didn’t it was usually because she was unexpectedly closed. Expect things to take some time (especially if there’s other diners) as it’s only her and she makes everything fresh to order.

In between the regular meal hours she may be closed for a nap or a quick run to the market. You can’t really go wrong on the menu here but I especially like her veggie pulao, veggie fried rice, mater mushroom (peas and mushroom), onion pakora and ginger tea. She also makes a good, strong Italian coffee (on the menu it’s the pot of filter coffee, not the “black coffee” which is Nescafe). It’s up the hill out of town but well worth the walk. To get there continue past Sonam’s Kitchen away from Chowrasta on Dr. Zakir Hussain Rd. After a while you will come to a fork where you can continue downhill or turn right. Turn right, pass the TV tower and then turn left up what continues to be Dr. Zakir Hussain Rd. It’ll be a small cafe with a purple sign on your right.

Ko Ko Mhendo’s Guesthouse
This cozy and affordable guesthouse is run by a kind, old Nepali couple in a quiet neighborhood up the hill outside of town. They speak some english and there are views of Mt. Kangchenjunga on clear days from the second story balcony. There is an atm across the street and some basic corner-style shops just up the street for getting water, fruit and snacks. I stayed here a few weeks in total and loved it. It felt like staying at grandma and grandpa’s house. They have three rooms: one small single and a large double that all share a bathroom and a double with it’s own bathroom. They don’t have hot showers but will provide a bucket of hot water for a few rupees upon request.

If you plan to trek the Singalila Ridge ask Grandpa for information—he gave us a 4 page guide with trekking routes, recommendations and a good map that some other trekker’s had put together back in 2005. We made a copy of it in town and it was incredibly helpful during our trek—most the information was still relevant (I had spent the previous day in town trying to find similar information with no luck).

To get here follow the instructions for Mistyck Cafe and continue another 2 minutes up the street. You will come to a bank and an atm and across from there (on your left) will be a small alley (there is a sign with an arrow but it can be a little hard to see). Go down the alley and turn right. The guesthouse is on the second floor of the house on your right. This place is a hidden gem—during the almost three weeks I stayed here they only had one other guest.

There’s a nice walk from here if you continue to follow the road up the hill. When you reach the cantonment area where you can’t go any further you will see a small trail going off the road into the hills on the right side. Follow this and you will come to a small shrine. If you continue down the hill you will arrive at a spooky, abandoned house which is fun to explore. On clear days you will have very nice views of Darjeeling from here.

Featured image at the beginning of this post is of Mt Kanchenjunga from Ko Ko Mhendo Guesthouse in the hills of Darjeeling.

Himalaya Gears
Right next to Himalayan Java (up the stairs on the left) is a small trekking shop with a good selection of quality trekking gear at good prices. The shop was running an unadvertised 20% discount on most things in the store while I was there. If you are looking for cheaper, lesser quality stuff check the local shops and markets directly down the hill from the main street (not down the main street, but down the stairs that go off the main street down the hill). Expect to do some exploring (I found the local markets in this area much more interesting than the shops on Zehru Road) but you’ll likely find better prices here than the shops on the main road selling the same knock off gear.

Andy’s Guesthouse
I didn’t stay here but a few friends did and they recommended it for being cheap and having hot showers and (relatively) soft beds. It’s on Dr. Zakir Hussain Rd. a bit beyond Sonam’s Cafe if you are walking away from Chowrasta.

Singalila Ridge Trek
The Singalila Ridge trek takes you through the hills of the Lesser Himalayas along the border of Nepal and West Bengal, India. You will pass through evergreen forests, rolling hills, and lush rain forest and have the opportunity to see a wide range of plants and animals. It’s a not-too-demanding trek through beautiful terrain.

Expect blooming rhododendrons and magnolias in the spring and clear views of the Himalayas (including Everest, Kangchenjunga and Lohtse) in the fall. You’ll experience diverse fauna (especially birds) and flora and the breathtakingly picturesque village of Ghorkey. Frequent tea houses and lodges make it an easy trek to do without camping gear.

I wrote a detailed guide for the Singalila Ridge trek which you can read for free here.

Blooming rhododendron in the foreground and the Singalila Ridge in the background.
A blooming rhododendron along the Singalila Ridge.
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Hello. I’m Alasdair.

Hello. I’m Alasdair.

I believe that being aware of who I am and mindful of who I am becoming is the best investment I can make in my life —and that when we focus our efforts within, the rewards naturally flow outward to those we love and through the communities we belong to.