Located at a height of 3,933 ft above sea level, Kalimpong is just 51 km from Darjeeling and 70 km from Siliguri. There are two National Highways originating at Siliguri that take you up to Darjeeling and Kalimpong. Though the distance is short, there is a major difference in weather and atmosphere between these two popular getaways.
Despite the fact that there are a number of tea gardens in Siliguri, it is totally urban with enough cars and trucks to make you want to get away as fast as possible. Darjeeling, on the other hand, is colder, mistier, more crowded and bustling. Kalimpong also has mists but it offers more of a holiday mood. The temperature is seldom colder than 12-16 degrees and on a sunny summer's day, the temperature may rise to as high as 30 degrees.
The drive to Kalimpong up the Teesta Valley from Siliguri is truly magical. The river seems to change mood with every turn until reaching Teesta Bazaar, where one normally stops for tea. Kalimgpong has its bi-monthly 'Haats.'
Mixing with the locals and experiencing the traditional culture is never a problem here. The place is an interesting mix of modern and traditional. Besides Indian goods, a huge variety of stuff from Bhutan, Sikkim, Tibet, and Nepal seem to filter in here, making the place a shopper's paradise.
Kalimpong is known to have originally been part of Bhutan. It was earlier called 'Dalingkote' by the Bhutias and was an important centre for Indo-Tibetan trade, being close to the important mountain passes of Nathu-la and Jelep-la. It was renamed when the British acquired the area after the Anglo-British War in 1864 and was raised to the stature of a sub-division in April 1916.
With its mild climate, the British found Kalimpong to be a perfect location for a sanatorium. In the early days, it was the weather that attracted British settlers and soon a main street "was laid out in correct boulevard style with rows of trees." At the time this street included Dr Graham's Homes and a Gothic Church, to which a clock tower was added in 1891.
The British colony is said to have had 1,200 members in 1916. With Kalimpong's weather being a great attraction, the numbers continued to grow and so did the need for schools. A number of private schools planned on the lines of Eton and Harrow were created in the region. However, the school that is still remembered is known Dr Graham's Homes – conceived as a home for underprivileged children created in 1900 by the Scottish Missionary Rev Dr John A Graham. It has been recorded that during Dr Graham's lifetime, the "Homes" consisted of 35 buildings, including cottages, schools, industrial and farm buildings, a hospital, a swimming bath and a park where around 600 domiciled European and Anglo-Indian children of both sexes – from 2 to 18 years – were educated.
There are many theories about the name Kalimpong. One theory claims that in Tibetan, the name means 'Assembly (or Stockade) of the King's Ministers.' Another theory is that the name is derived from the translation "ridge where we play" in Lepcha, as it is known as a place for tribal gatherings and summer sports.
Kalimpong is home to Nepalis, Lepchas, and other ethnic groups and is now an important religious centre for Buddhism. The first Buddhist Monastery to be built here was the Thongsha Gumpa.
The Tharpa Choling Monastery is located in the centre of the city and a Bhutanese monastery on the 12 Mile Road. The Tibetan Buddhist monastery Zang Dhok Palri Phodang is known for a number of rare Tibetan Buddhist scriptures. However, it is important to note that even as early as in 1900s, there was a mosque and a Hindu temple in Kalimpong.
The Kalimpong Science Centre, established in 2008 is a recent addition. It offers scientific awareness among the students of the town. The locals and visitors tend to spend more time atop the Deolo Hill, the highest point in Kalimpong. But the most important aspect of this lovely hill station has been kept till the last. Horticulture is one of the most important money-earners in Kalimpong. It has a splendid flower market notable for its wide array of orchids and nurseries that export Himalayan grown flower bulbs, tubers and rhizomes.
Kalimpong is a major production centre for the popular flower Gladioli and some of India's best orchids that are exported to many parts of the world.
Of late, Kalimpong's cactus cultivation is making waves. Its nurseries attract people from far and near for the stunning collection of cacti cultivated here.
The many strains of cactus though not indigenous to the area, have been carefully cultivated over the years. The plants have adapted well to the altitude and environment and now prove to be one of the chief draws of visitors.
Kalimpong's annual flower show in October is a big draw. The best season for visiting Kalimpong is spring when orchids bloom wild on trees and the nurseries have their finest selection and their most exotic varieties in bloom.