In Great Britain, afternoon tea is a tradition, a relaxing way to recharge the body's batteries while savoring a three-tiered silver tray usually laden with three-bite sandwiches; scones ready to lavished with clotted cream and jam; and exquisite pastries and chocolate bonbons.
While gadding about on a BritRail pass, I used afternoon tea as a way to immerse in the United Kingdom's rich heritage and indulge in five-star experiences, without coughing up $500 or more for a hotel room. Almost anyone willing to ante up 15 quid (about $30) can do the same. Even better for the budget bound, afternoon tea can substitute for a late lunch or an early dinner. I experienced each of these properties simply by sipping afternoon tea. You can, too.
The Arch, London: On the exterior, these seven Georgian townhouses facing Great Cumberland Place appear quite ordinary and stiff upper lip British. But inside this five-star boutique hotel, just a couple of blocks from Hyde Park and Oxbridge Street and across from Madonna's London pad, designers let loose with contemporary vigor, vibrant colors and patterns, and original works by emerging British artists.
After a boutique binge in Marylebone or along Oxford Street (where you might get lucky and see Princess Kate), celebrate your finds over afternoon tea in the casual yet chic Library, where you can thumb through art books, or in the tony Le Salon de Champagne, with its champagne ceiling mural, modern armchairs, and secluded leather banquettes. Be sure to wander the public rooms to check out all the art - and see who might be lounging about.
Bodysgallen Hall, Llandudno, Wales: The stone pine tree in front of Bodysgallen Hall, one of three historic hotels owned by The National Trust, is approximately 600 years old. The hotel's oldest section was built in the late 13th century as a guard tower for Conwy castle. Over the centuries, it's expanded to a 220-acre estate with wooded parklands and an exquisite, private, 20-acre formal garden, dating from 1678.
Book afternoon tea and be rewarded with a double treat: Experiencing Bodysgallen both inside and out. Sit in the entrance hall or upstairs drawing room, both with elaborate fireplaces, magnificent oak paneling, and stone mullioned windows. Request a copy of the historical brochure from the front desk, and browse through the history while sipping and nibbling. Afterwards, mosey through the other public rooms. Having tea entitles you to explore the gardens and parklands, usually reserved for overnight guests. Highlights include a rare 17th-century herb-filled boxed hedge parterre, rockery with a water cascade, walled rose garden, several follies, and 17th-century Terrace Walk with views to Conwy Castle and Snowdonia.
Plas Maenan Country House, Maenan, Wales: After a day poking around the Conwy Valley countryside, finish up with tea at James and Caroline Burt's masterfully restored Edwardian manor house overlooking Snowdonia National Park and the Conwy River. Tea is served in the elegant living room, near doubletake-producing life-size faux sheep lounging by the fireside. I shared tea with Paul Wakely of Cambrian Tour Guides, who introduced me to slathering clotted cream and jam not only on the scones, but also on the homemade shortbread, "brilliant!" as the Brits say. If the service seems a bit royal, that might be because James is retired from service to the Queen.
Plas Maenan has an interesting history, but perhaps most intriguing is that it is home to one of the largest colonies of endangered lesser horseshoe bats in the British Isles. If you stick around until dusk, you might see as many as 500 emerge from an old tunnel complex under the hotel's terrace. About that tunnel complex: Reputedly, it was used to store treasures from the National Gallery during World War II.
Chester Grosvenor, Chester, England: Top-hatted doormen welcome guests to this five-star hotel, owned by the Duke of Westminster's family and located within the walls of Chester, a city with a history dating back to its origins as a Roman fort in the first century. The hotel's black-and-white timbered facade fits in well with Chester's numerous Tudor buildings, some original, others Victorian-era restorations. Inside, the décor is contemporary, but accented with a half-ton, 28,000-crystal Georgian chandelier and original artwork selected from the Duke's collection.
Afternoon tea at the Arkle Bar And Lounge or upstairs in the gallery is a treat. While the Traditional Afternoon Tea is a decadent offering of scones, finger sandwiches, and sweets, the Gentleman's Afternoon Tea is a far heartier affair, with crusty sandwiches, addictive chips (fries), Cheshire cheese, and more substantial sweets, and it's not limited to men. A friend and I ordered one of each tea to share, which resulted in a decadent and quite filling meal. Afterwards, even if you're full, pop into Rococo Chocolates, the only non-London shop for one of England's finest chocolatiers.
Great Fosters, Egham, England: The royal connections for the mid 16th-century main house (converted to Elizabethan design in the early 20th century) are deep - witness the original royal crest of Queen Elizabeth I inscribed above the main porch and dated 1598 Great Fosters served as a hunting lodge by King Henry VIII, so there's some irony in taking tea in the Anne Boleyn Room, where the magnificent 16th-century ceiling include Boleyn's personal crests.
While the interior is reason enough to visit, the gardens are the real calling card. A moat, likely of 6th-century Saxon origin, now forms a border for the gardens, including yew hedges and a knot garden created in the 1920s in the Arts and Crafts style. Cross the wisteria-dressed Japanese bridge over the moat, and arrive in the circular sunken rose garden, a masterpiece that when in full bloom is an especially sensual treat. Keep wandering to find hedges with secret rooms.
Want to linger at any of these properties? Specials, off-season rates, and online deals often bring room prices down to within splurging range: I've found rates of less than $250/night double, with breakfast.)