“Have some wine,’ the March Hare said in an encouraging tone.
Alice looked all round the table, but there was nothing on it but tea. ‘I don’t see any wine,’ she remarked.
‘There isn’t any,’ said the March Hare.” – from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll
Christmas is a magical time in London – an experience that, at some point, everyone should enjoy. There is electricity in the air as people (lots of people) scurry about shopping, partying and having a jolly good time.
The city itself sparkles with spectacular lighting and decorations.
After our couple of weeks in France, we took the Eurostar from Tours to London. Part of the trip included a ride through the Chunnel (Chanel Tunnel) which departs from the city of Coquelles (near Calais) and arrives in Folkestone, in the county of Kent.
The tunnel is 31 miles long with 23 of those miles 150 feet beneath the surface of the English Channel. Much of the time, the train travels at speeds upwards of 160 kph. I thought it would be a cool experience to ride in the Chunnel but I have to say it was fairly boring (There were no windows so we couldn’t watch fish swimming about). Luckily, Karel kept us all supplied with chocolates and other snacks to pass the time.
Sandy, our genius travel planner, booked us into the Flemings Mayfair hotel which is part of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World group. It is a boutique hotel in a great location that is close to everything in London. Even though it is around the corner from Piccadilly and Green Park, it was well sheltered from any street noise.
Our room was fantastic. I loved the heated floor in the bathroom and the bed was super comfy. I was seriously impressed from check in to check out – on our last morning, the concierge arranged a private van to whisk us to Heathrow at 4:00 in the morning.
There was a proper British bar (Manetta’s) with lots of brass and dark wood, some pretty amazing cocktails and a decent stock of wines by the glass.
The dining experience (Ormer’s) was many levels above your typical hotel restaurant.
We were treated like royalty by the entire Flemings staff and always felt welcomed and appreciated – it doesn’t get very much better.
The Flemings Mayfair is but a short walk from the Ritz Hotel. Afternoon Tea at The Ritz is known worldwide. It is something that we felt we needed to experience – and what better time than during the Christmas season.
Tea at The Ritz is an institution in itself and is served in the spectacular Palm Court, which epitomizes the elegantly frivolous comfort of Edwardian high life. Its glazed roof flooded the room with light along with glittering wrought iron chandeliers that were more like works of art with their painted metal flowers.
Christmas trees, boughs of holly and pine wreaths added a stylish and seasonal flourish to the room.
The tradition of Afternoon Tea appears to have barely changed since 1906, which is part of the charm. While other restaurants have relaxed their dress codes, Afternoon Tea in the Palm Court still requires gentlemen to wear ties and jackets, and on the chilly Friday afternoon of our visit, several women had arrived in evening dress.
Rightly so, for the elegance of the surroundings, with all those gilt mirrors and decorative trellis work demanded a proper sartorial tribute.
We were escorted to our table (reserved by Sandy months in advance) by a waiter wearing tuxedo and tails. I noticed that even tables for two were large enough so that the cake stand did not block the diner’s view and there was a helpful handbag shelf tucked under each table. The chinaware (exclusive to the Palm Court) complemented the room with its design of gold, pale green and rose. Just outside the room, an excellent pianist and vocal group were performing traditional Christmas songs.
We sipped a glass of champagne while we perused the list of eighteen types of tea which were available. There was a blend to meet anyone’s preference. I chose one spiked with cinnamon and cloves. The Ritz has been awarded two prestigious Tea Guild Awards (Award of Excellence and Top London Afternoon Tea) for many years in a row. It is the only hotel in the UK to have a certified Tea Sommelier. Giandomenico Scanu travels around the world to various tea plantations to source wonderful teas for the Ritz. The staff was exceptionally well-trained and gave advice on choosing a tea and even explained some of the finer points of English tea etiquette.
Within minutes of selecting our choice of tea, a cart arrived with silver teapots for each of us.
This was accompanied by a tiered cake stand brimming with platefuls of finely trimmed finger sandwiches with old-fashioned fillings (smoked salmon, roast ham, cucumber, chicken breast with parsley mayonnaise, egg and watercress).
As soon as one serving had been enjoyed, another was brought in its stead. We then moved on to fresh, hot scones that were served with clotted Cornish cream and strawberry preserves. Just when we thought we could not eat another bite, a trolley piled high with a mouth-watering range of exquisitely presented pastries, cakes, and other sweets was wheeled up so that we could select our dessert(s). We all had to go back to the Flemings for a nap!
It is easy to see how Afternoon Tea has become a tradition in the UK. The afternoon was everything we expected and even more – Downton Abbey would be proud. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world! That said, it was one of those experiences that I wanted but now that I have done it, I don’t feel the need for a repeat performance.