Travel International

#1 The Florida Times-Union, February 29, 2004


Two for Tea: Afternoon indulgence in London steeped in tradition


I am taking a tea break.  Milk, no sugar.  Tea makes me pause, allows me to collect my thoughts, gives me renewed vigor.  It is drizzling outside.  The slick roads have an even sheen and the windshield wipers of passing cars swipe slowly yet rhythmically.  The sky is dirty, chalky white.  All this reminds me of England.  I used to live in London and always like to go there, but my trips are never long enough.  Whenever I visit, London becomes a marathon of reunions, cultural activities, and shopping sprees ending in irrational purchases like cashmere sweaters, which have limited use now that Southern Mississippi is my home.  After that, it is time to rush back.

When planning my last trip, I determined the vacation experience had to be different.  Of course, the circumstances were changed.  I was traveling with a husband and toddler, neither of whom had come to England with me before.  The tete-a-tete visits with friends and family members merged into group dinners, freeing valuable daytime hours.  I consulted my husband on what museums and exhibitions were of greatest interest, so the cultural to-do list shrank to a few manageable outings.  Window-shopping became a less time-consuming and more economical option.  But my most important decision was to arrange three relaxing tea breaks at hotels well-established in the ritual of afternoon tea.

Though we arrived in the West End on a rainy afternoon, the shop windows glowed and the pavements bustled with people walking briskly in smart wool coats under broad, wood-handled umbrellas.  Much to my son’s delight, double-decker buses brightened the traffic, looking redder and glossier than usual.  Nothing wrong with wet and dreary in London.  We checked into a quiet hotel tucked away on the narrow, romantic-sounding Half Moon Street.  The Flemings Mayfair Hotel offers furnished apartments with living rooms and well-equipped kitchens, ideal for families with children.  After unpacking, cleaning up, and stocking our fridge with basics from an extortionate corner store, we were ready to go.  Our first destination was within walking distance, but our toddler had his mind set on a London taxi ride.  We gladly acceded.

The Dorchester Hotel overlooks Hyde Park.  As we drove up we were distracted by a Wordsworthian showing of daffodils in full bloom, standing bright and upright as the guards at Buckingham Palace.  An impeccably dressed doorman opened our taxi door.  “Good afternoon, madam.  Good afternoon, sir,” he said, showing us into the hotel where we were ushered to the Promenade, a long lobby marked by two lines of columns topped with gilded Corinthian capitals.  We sat between swirls of blush-toned marble in an intimate seating enclave at a low table covered in white linen.  Despite the elegant formality of our surroundings, we instantly felt comfortable and soon our son was driving little toy cars along the curved sofa back.

Tea items at the Dorchester can be ordered a la carte.  One can also select the High Tea menu, distinguished from the Afternoon Tea menu by substituting a savory dish for a plate of scones (cousins to American biscuits) and jam.  Considering the late hour, we decided to try High Tea and skip supper.  The Dorchester brought their tea foods out in courses.  The perfectly-sized-for-toddlers finger sandwiches delighted my son, after which we enjoyed our eggs benedict with truffle shavings, followed by an assortment of decadent French pastries.  For my tea beverage, I sampled the Dorchester blend, a fragrant orange pekoe.  By teatime’s end, we felt cozy, pampered and satisfied.  The long day of traveling ended splendidly.

That week we spent our nights socializing at dinner parties.  My toddler was on U.S. time, staying up much later than usual, so jet lag never became a problem.  By contrast, our days were unplanned and leisurely.  We ambled across the green expanses of Hyde Park to the silver-gray Serpentine Lake where our son squatted at the water’s edge and fed salvaged breakfast crusts to ducks and swans, as I had done as a child.  We went to the Princess Diana Memorial Children’s Playground in Kensington Gardens, populated by English children and their nannies, and stocked with whimsical wooden equipment like a ship with masts and rigging.  We browsed through antique shops on Portobello Road.  Our favorite specialized in nineteenth-century tea caddies, decorative boxes where once-coveted tea leaves were kept under lock and key.

In the present day, afternoon tea at Claridge's is coveted by many.  My friend, an Anglo-Hollywood screenwriter who happened to be in town, perked up when I suggested we meet there.  “How civilized,” he said.  “What a great idea!”  The hotel was glamorous.  Art deco touches, such as mirror-plated pillars and geometrically patterned carpets, flourished throughout.  Our son took a shining to an extraordinary light sculpture assembled with more than eight hundred pieces of blown glass, hanging extravagantly from the eighteen-foot ceiling of the spacious foyer.   I preferred an enormous vase overflowing with an abundance of white flowers worthy of a still life.  The wonderful string quartet that played so ardently paled in comparison to the decor.

My friend handed his Porsche keys to my son for entertainment.  “Don’t worry about the car alarm,” he said, “I had to park miles away.”  Tea at Claridge's was less choreographed than at the Dorchester, as everything came at once on a tiered stand.  The beverage menu was also more exotic, offering aromatic blended teas with names like Eros, perfumed with hibiscus and mallow flowers, and Casablanca, Moroccan green tea scented with mint and bergamot.  I half expected to see a 1930’s movie star dab her lips with a napkin at another table.  The best edible treat - from a menu which included sandwiches, scones and petit fours - was a miniature creme brulee in a tiny ramekin with a round crisp of caramelized sugar atop a pale spoonful of silken custard.

The following morning we explored the stark, cavernous Tate Modern, ideal for displaying contemporary art and sculpture, the bold shapes and bright colors of which kept our toddler entranced.  We ate at a hip restaurant on the top floor to sweeping vistas of the flat brown River Thames and the white dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral beyond.  On another day, we visited the Tate Britain where Turner’s large seascapes never fail to mesmerize with their mastery of light and movement.  No trip to London is complete without popping into Fortnum & Mason’s department store and picking up green tins of loose-leaf Earl Grey tea infused with oil of bergamot.  Steeped in a pre-warmed teapot and poured through a strainer into a china cup, this fragrant tea is my all-time favorite.

On our last day, we spent time at Waterstone's, a multistoried, first-rate bookshop on Piccadilly Road.  My husband purchased hard-to-find texts on antique furniture restoration and my son got some English children’s books not easily available in the United States.  We then wandered a few blocks to another scheduled tea stop.  The fairy lights spelling “The Ritz” in the deepening blue of a cold afternoon are always a welcome sight, but more so today, as hot tea beckoned.  Unfortunately, I made the mistake of forgetting about the dress code: jacket and tie for gentlemen.  Caught between the surprisingly dour doorman and the understandably impatient toddler, my jeans-clad husband graciously offered to leave with our son and enable me to have afternoon tea alone.

The Palm Court is opulent.  Steps lead up to an oval-shaped room enhanced by floor-to-ceiling mirrors, lit from a central glazed roof and furnished in pastel Louis XVI reproductions.  My reservation for tea was diligently scrutinized before I was shown to a dainty table covered in a damask cloth bearing the hotel crest and topped with an arrangement of marble-potted miniature roses.  Since I did not have a toddler to entertain with crayons and coloring books, I was able to table-watch.  Around me were dowagers in pearls, sleepy Japanese twins with their dressed-for-business father, and a group of giddy debutantes.  A silver tea service came out promptly, followed by multiple finger foods.

The Ritz’s sandwiches included smoked salmon, cucumber, and egg salad with mustard cress, all made on a variety of tasty breads.  The homemade strawberry jam was also delicious on warm scones slathered with Devonshire clotted cream.  The pastry staff clearly takes pride in their pastries.  The tiny lemon meringue pie - dissolving in the mouth like cotton candy with a tart aftertaste - bore a chocolate plaque with “Ritz” spelled out in gold.  Mainly, as a new wife and a newer mother, I relished every minute of this unexpected solitary pleasure on the day before the family was to fly home.

“Mummy, can we have a tea party?” asks my son.  “Of course,” I say reaching for the toy china set from a high shelf in the playroom.  When Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford, supposedly introduced afternoon tea in the early 1800’s, she did so to stave off hunger pangs between lunch and dinner.  She clearly did not have to care for a three-year-old in America.  As a family, we rarely eat late and are likely in bed by European dinner times.  Nonetheless, my son and I observe certain rituals.  We spread a large cloth on the floor and arrange small teacups and plates in front of the favorite stuffed animals.  I fetch assorted nibbles for them and cold milk for him.

Then I hear the kettle whistling.