Tea time around the world
Some people say the British drama “Downton Abbey” put tea on the front burner; others say it was Queen Elizabeth’s 90th birthday celebration. Or maybe people are just bored with coffee.
Whatever the reason, interest in tea is booming, which you’ll find when you travel nearly anywhere.
More than 158 million Americans sip it, hot or cold, on any given day. Four in five U.S. consumers drink tea, according to the Tea Assn. of the USA Inc.
Baby boomers are big fans, but millennials are the most likely tea drinkers, the association said: A whopping 87% choose it.
With the beverage’s upswing in popularity, the British pastime of tea is surging in high-end hotels worldwide.
It has become so popular at the Four Seasons Resort the Biltmore Santa Barbara that the Saturday afternoon tea often is booked three weeks in advance.
The tradition "is passed down from generation to generation," said Koji Akaboshi, food and beverage director. "We’re seeing daughters who used to come with their mother join us with their own children now."
At most places the menu includes scones, finger sandwiches, sweets and an occasional glass of Champagne.
I like all of those — and tea too — so I decided to create my own special tour, sampling the fare at some of the swankiest hotel tearooms in the world.
My travel schedule last year took me to Britain and several former British outposts where elaborate afternoon teas are common.
Pinkies at the ready? Have a cup of tea with me at five places where Lipton teabags probably aren’t on the menu.
Fairmont Empress Hotel, Victoria, Canada
Victoria is one of my favorite North American cities: a postcard-pretty provincial capital full of lush gardens and historic buildings.
The Fairmont Empress is more than 100 years old and so renown that it is one reason people visit the city.
That’s as good a reason as any to indulge in its famed afternoon tea, which is served in the Lobby Lounge, with a view of Victoria’s charming Inner Harbour.
The hotel is undergoing a $40-million renovation. Phase One was finished last summer, infusing a modern design but maintaining classic details. The lounge area where tea is served has been refurbished so guests see a prettier face.
Some new details have also been added to upgrade the tea experience. I especially liked the wooden book-like menu that opens to reveal small compartments full of loose-leaf teas.
You can choose from 21 teas, including the Empress and rare Tong Mu Phoenix Lapsang Souchong blends, and you’ll drink from custom Royal Doulton china. The hotel has used the china since the royal visit by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in 1939.
But let’s get to the good stuff: salmon pinwheels, turkey breast and English cucumber sandwiches and the wonderful chocolate dome tart.
The Empress’ tea offers a lovely diversion on a sunny Victoria Island day, or on a rainy island day, for that matter.
Reserve two weeks in advance.
Info: Tea at The Empress, 721 Government St., Victoria; Canada; (250) 384-8111. Tea $57 per person; $80 with a glass of Veuve Clicquot Champagne.
Ah, London. So many wonderful tearooms, so little time.
I took a cue from Condé Nast Traveller (the British version) and visited the magazine’s fave for tea connoisseurs: the Lanesborough, a Regency-era gem known for classically British service.
If you’re looking for genteel London glamour, this is the place. The Knightsbridge hotel, on Hyde Park Corner across from Buckingham Palace, reopened in 2015 after a multimillion-dollar, two-year renovation.
It caters to the well-heeled, with 93 individually decorated rooms, including 43 suites. One of these, the royal suite, has seven bedrooms and goes for $22,000 a night.
I joined three friends here for tea one afternoon last summer, settling into a booth in a richly decorated room flooded with natural light. (In the evening, it becomes the setting for Céleste, the hotel’s Michelin-starred restaurant.)
The tea menu was nine pages and included black, green, white, oolong, herbal, decaffeinated, fruit/ice teas and premiums.
Top of the line seemed to be Darjeeling First Flush Goomtee; the menu explained that first flush teas are sometimes referred to as the Champagne of Indian tea because of their flowery, aromatic character.
I passed. Its premium price would have added $18.50 to the bill.
I didn’t pass, however, on the additional $16 charge for a class of Taittinger Champagne.
Tea and Champagne are a truly excellent combination, especially when accompanying Scottish salmon and caviar finger sandwiches, chocolate cupcakes, apple tarts and cashew nut brownies. And, of course, fresh strawberries and sorbet with vanilla cream.
Info: Hyde Park Corner, London; 011-44-20-7333-7254, www.lanesborough.com. Tea $64 per person, $80 with Champagne.
The Ritz, Paris
It may seem odd to include a French hotel on this list. But the Ritz, a Parisian grande dame, offers an excellent tea although it’s a bit different from British teas.
"It’s French tea," said Steve Cochon, the hotel’s tea sommelier.
"We only do sweets with tea, no savories," he said, referring to the finger sandwiches that Brits include in a tea service.
Another thing that puts this hotel on our list: It’s well worth a visit after its recent reopening following a four-year, $420-million renovation.
The Place Vendôme hotel, which shares the elegant 18th century square with some of the world’s most exclusive jewelry stores, has a storied history.
Coco Chanel lived here, Princess Diana ate her last meal here, and Ernest Hemingway supposedly led its liberation from the Nazis. (There’s debate about how much liberating was needed by the time the author arrived.)