"This is London, and I want pomp," I hissed at my husband as I made reservations for afternoon tea at some of the city's finest hotels. On previous vacations here, this refreshing ritual had consisted of forgettable forays into cafes and coffee chains. But this tour of formal tearooms would exceed our expectations. Each respite suffused us with a sense of luxury and convinced us that the British may have lost their empire, but they still command the tea world.
What's the attraction?
I had long considered afternoon tea an elaborate timeout from life, offering luxury, diversion, conversation and relaxation. Over the years, these attractions had enticed me into several hotel tearooms, where my experiences were mixed: The tea was usually not hot enough. If the scones were delightful, the finger sandwiches were not. Could the tearooms along the Thames be superior to those I had tried?
First stop: the Lanesborough
My maiden tearoom voyage was to the Lanesborough Hotel's exquisite Conservatory (1 Lanesborough Place, 011-44-20-7259-5599). My husband, Dick, and I strolled onto a pristine stage of marble floors and fireplaces adorned with classic paintings, gleaming mahogany tables and fine French sofas. From the moment we sat at our linen-covered table until we departed, 2 1/2 hours later, servers hovered, replenishing tea and food, bringing fresh napkins and offering to snap photos. It was nightfall when we paid our $95 check -- reasonable for the ultimate hotel tearoom experience. After we collected our coats, we waddled down the marble hall, past a crackling fire.
The gleaming Ritz
Of all the tearooms along the Thames, the Ritz's ornate Palm Court (150 Piccadilly, 011-44-20-7493-8181) was the one we were most curious about. The reasons were myriad: the exorbitant cost of $65 per person, the months-in-advance booking that was required. Despite some miscues on our seating, the meal made up for it. Gleaming silver pots of tea -- chosen from seven varieties on the menu -- arrived. As we sipped from Royal Worcester china, the customary tray bearing finger sandwiches, apple-and-raisin scones and dainty custard tarts made a graceful debut. About $130 later, we reclaimed our coats, took a lingering look at the palatial setting and strolled through the hotel's handsome revolving door. I now understood why tea at the Ritz is considered a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It was good but not gracious. I wouldn't do it again.
Stompin' into the Savoy
A tour of London's legendary hotel tearooms wouldn't be complete without a lengthy sojourn at the Savoy (The Strand, 011-44-20-7836-4343). Attentive waiters in black morning coats and striped trousers glided by with three-tiered trays holding the typical finger sandwiches and scones. But there was nothing typical about the assortment of French, Italian and Austrian pastries clustered on each tray. Dick was overwhelmed. He submerged his fork in tender German nut torte and noted, "A guy could do serious damage here." Yes, it was expensive: $100, including tip, but the stellar service, high quality of food and tea (11 varieties are offered) and Victorian-novel atmosphere were worth it.
Basil Street Hotel
Unlike our first three hotels, Basil Street (8 Basil St., 011-44-20-7581-3311) does not require reservations . Several couples and a few individuals and groups were well into teatime when we arrived at 4 p.m. Basil Street charges a reasonable $27 for afternoon tea. There is no piano, but it was fascinating to eavesdrop on conversations. Our piping hot Earl Grey and chamomile arrived in silver pots, followed by sandwiches, freshly baked scones, pastries and generous wedges of Camembert and Gouda -- all on Wedgwood china. The atmosphere was warm and cordial when we left at 5:30.
The hotel (35 St. James's Place, 011-44-20-7491-4840) is tucked away in aristocratic Mayfair near St. James's Palace and Clarence House, the residence of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles. Nine blends are offered daily in the dignified drawing room, where three small chambers hold five tables and an assemblage of cushy chairs. As we devoured the exquisite food, we admired a striking oil painting above a marble mantel holding a box of fragrant, hot-pink orchids. Discreet conversation flowed in all three rooms; there is no piano. Our tea-mates were shoppers and a few Irish tourists holding court in the center chamber. Our check came to $60, making this a great discovery.
Where to stay
Each of the tea rooms is set in one of the city's grand hotels. Rates for double rooms start at about $400 and go up considerably. Feeling generous? Check out the chic Halkin Hotel, with large rooms featuring rich leather and soothing muted colors. 526 Halkin St.; 011-44-20-7333-1000. Doubles from $478.
British, American, Virgin Atlantic, Air New Zealand and United all offer nonstop service between LAX and London. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $538 until next week, when they drop to $428.