What could be more perfect for the traveler than a relaxing pause (anytime from 11:30 a.m. until 7:30 p.m., depending on the tea salon) with enough sandwiches, scones and pastries to substitute for lunch or dinner?
During a recent two weeks in London, I was by myself; tea for one just hit the spot. I reserved months ahead and wove afternoon teas through my stay as a ribbon of gloriously relaxed interludes.
Once again, I was reminded that it's true that you get what you pay for. Although every one of my teas was superb, some were even more so, and the most expensive ones were at the top.
Generally, afternoon tea at a lovely place like Kensington Palace's Orangery will cost close to $40 (R539), and the very best will cost about twice that.
My favorite was, indeed, among the most expensive, at about $79 (R1064.18). The Foyer at Claridge's has been hosting afternoon tea for 150 years, and certainly has it perfected.
The high-ceilinged tearoom is all cozy and colorful in its signature Claridge's sea-green and white, from the beautiful carpet and striped china to the cushy upholstered tub chairs and pillows. A gorgeously sculptured, twisted and knotted glass chandelier hangs over the towering centerpiece of green and white flowers.
My waiter, in a crisp, white jacket and Claridge's green bow tie, presented the menus of teas and delectables with a flourish.
"Let me tell you how we make the perfect cup," he said, and assured me that he would return with a second cup if I decided to switch from Assam. Perfect little tea sandwiches came quickly, lined up like crop rows - as they were at each of the tea spots I tried. Claridge's version of the usual sandwich varieties are the best. Their Cotswold roast chicken, layered with asparagus and avocado in crème fraîche on rye, and the Scottish salmon, with dill and rock samphire mayonnaise on malt bread, are superb.
I tried to pace myself, knowing from experience - this was the fifth of the eight afternoon teas during my stay. As with nearly all of the tea spots, Claridge's serves plain and raisin scones with clotted cream and jam (including its secret recipe for Marco Polo gelee, a variation on strawberry jam). Many places also offer lemon curd. All you can eat - if you dare.
Claridge's tea menu recommends different varieties for different dishes, like wine pairings. I rallied as my waiter presented a platter of pastries that included the lightest strawberry cream tart with tiny streusel crumbles, the lightest lime-cream macaroon and a chocolate cream with caramel on a crispy bottom. And finally, I enjoyed a light lemongrass herbal tea.
None of the afternoon tea spots rushed me. I spent an hour and a half to two hours at each. And the hosts and waiters didn't bat an eyelash about giving a onesome a nice perch from which to savor the experience.
Here are some high points of the other afternoon teas during my two-week survey.
Overall runner-up: The Savoy Hotel, where the scones are supremely soft and doughy, better than Claridge's, and the setting gorgeous, with its 1904 glass cupola.
Best for an intimate, quiet setting: Brown's Hotel, where the tearoom is oak-paneled and low-ceilinged. Top hint: a fromage blanc lime and ginger tart.
Best if you prefer stylish dress and a strict men's dress code: The Ritz Hotel, the only one I visited that is still requiring a coat and tie for men.
Best for a view: Aqua Shard, on the 31st floor of Britain's tallest skyscraper, where the glass-walled restaurant is contemporary, you can see for miles up and down the Thames and the food is great.