May 02, 2011

Tea at the Ritz

London, May 2010 - It was arrival day for Trafalgar Tours' Contrasts of Europe train tour through England, France and Italy. We had already spent two days in London for some extra sightseeing, and later we would be meeting the other members of our tour group.

Morning brought more rain (it was springtime in London, after all) so our concierge waved down a cab for our journey to the Ritz Hotel for Champagne Afternoon Tea in the Palm Court.

The Ritz Hotel, London

I made the reservation online months in advance, as this was a Bank Holiday weekend. We checked our raincoats and made a visit to the Powder Room downstairs, a feminine pink domain with white cotton hand towels and a conscientious attendant.

The Palm Court, Ritz Hotel

The Palm Court was smaller than I expected, but the mirrored walls, chandeliers and potted palms expanded the space and it was an airy, inviting place, especially on a cold, wet day. A pianist entertained us while the waiter in his formal attire was friendly and welcoming, putting us immediately at ease. He pointed out the little shelf underneath our table for storing our handbags and returned shortly with our flutes of champagne.

The table was set with fine china and bowls of Devonshire Clotted Cream and Strawberry Preserves. A three-tiered tray of sandwiches, scones, tea pastries and cakes soon arrived, followed by the fragrant Jasmine Tea with Flowers I had selected from the menu, presented in an elegant silver tea pot. But it was the attentive service that made it such a memorable occasion.

Champagne Afternoon Tea at the Ritz

Once tea was over, we walked several blocks to Brompton Road and the green awnings of Harrods department store. All shoppers must clear security before entering this iconic British emporium. We visited the Food Hall, rode the Egyptian escalator to the Memorial to Diana and Dodi, and then made our way to the basement Gift Shop (a great place for inexpensive souvenirs).

Memorial to Diana and Dodi at Harrods, London

We then searched for the stop for the red double-decker bus that would take us to Kensington Palace. Along the way I ducked into several shops in search of a pair of gloves, as the weather was colder than I had expected, but without success.

Kensington Palace, London

It was a good walk from the bus stop through Kensington Gardens to the palace, and the correct entrance was not easy to find. But we eventually spotted the Sunken Garden, blooming with spring flowers and a welcome sight on such a gloomy day.

Sunken Garden, Kensington Palace

The installations of The Enchanted Palace exhibit were a disappointment to me - I didn't really get the concept. I would have much preferred to see Princess Diana's gowns and the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection, which were unfortunately packed away due to renovations taking place in the palace for the 2012 Olympics.

I had also hoped to have tea in the Orangerie, but there was a long queue at the entrance and it was very chilly outside. So we returned to our hotel for the Welcome Drink with our Tour Director.

Our tour group was a friendly mix of Australians, Americans and Canadians. We were briefed on what to expect over the next two weeks, and given a list of optional tours we could book in Paris and Nice. Unfortunately, you won't know exactly which optional tours will be offered until you arrive in Europe. But this train tour provides enough free time in each city for travellers to pursue their own interests, and this is one of the reasons why we chose this tour.

Afterwards, we headed for the London Eye. Originally named the Millennium Wheel, this modern landmark was built on the bank of the Thames to celebrate the New Millennium in 2000. The wheel rotates slowly as passengers walk on, so slowly that you barely notice it moving. Bench seats are located in the centre of each pod, but most people preferred to move around to take in the full panorama. And any concerns I may have had about the height were erased by the splendid views of London during the smooth half hour ride.

London Eye, London

In the morning we would officially begin our Contrasts of Europe tour, starting with a half day of city sightseeing. It would be our last day in London before crossing over to France.

Next:  Royal London

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