With an eye on tradition, Patricia Maunder nominates the best dining rooms to take tea and cake.
One of my favourite indulgences is a first-class afternoon tea. It's evocative of luxury and a time when the leisured classes had time to relax between lunch and dinner.
Afternoon tea fell out of favour in the 20th century, then made a comeback about 15 years ago. Some of the world's historic grand hotels are renowned for their afternoon teas. Anywhere serving this special meal must have at least half an eye on the accoutrements of the tradition's 19th-century heyday.
The Tea Room, Gunners' Barracks, Sydney
What catches your breath here is the magnificent view, best enjoyed from the terrace. From the charming 1873 sandstone building amid the quiet of the surrounding bushland, look across Sydney Harbour, Camp Cove and Rose and Watsons bays.
The $35 repast, served on Royal Albert china, aims for quality rather than quantity and coeliacs will rejoice at the gluten-free option. For an additional $3, choose from the "Tea for Connoisseurs" selection, which includes Taiwanese jade oolong and silvertips white tea.
Suakin Drive, Georges Heights, phone 8962 5900, see thetearoom.com.au.
The Windsor, Melbourne
This grand old dame is probably Australia's best destination for traditional afternoon tea, which has been served throughout the hotel's 125-year history. A three-tiered cake stand of dainties is brought to your table but on weekends leave room for the buffet of sweet treats, including cakes, slices, sauces, tarts and ice-cream.
Afternoon tea costs $65, or $45 on weekdays. Considering the sense of occasion and the elegant dining room, it's almost a bargain. Book at least a month ahead for weekends.
111 Spring Street, phone (03) 9633 6000, see www.thewindsor.com.au.
The Ritz, London
Long waiting lists are a good sign that something worthwhile is on offer. But I was surprised just how far ahead reservations are required at the Ritz, which redefines afternoon tea by serving it at 11.30am, 1.30pm, 3.30pm, 5.30pm and 7.30pm. Booking seven weeks ahead, the best I could do was 11.30am.
It's worth the wait as you step into the Edwardian-era Palm Court, a stately rococo-revival affair with gilt naked-nymph fountain. For £37 ($73) diners get scones, finger sandwiches and little cakes. Keep accepting offers to refill plates and cups and soak up a century of history rather than worrying about the Australian-dollar conversion.
150 Piccadilly, London, England, see www.theritzlondon.com.
Brown's Hotel, London
London, afternoon tea's spiritual home, needs more than one inclusion on any list of this kind because there's a plethora of excellent options, such as Claridge's and The Dorchester. However, if you want to skip the grand-hotel tourist honey pots, try this boutique hotel established in 1837. The hotel's club-like English Tea Room won this year's top London afternoon tea in the British Tea Council's Top Tea Places awards.
The award's judges commended the tea knowledge of the staff, as well as the menu, which they said describes the teas available with "the reverence attached to a wine list".
Albemarle Street, Mayfair, London, see brownshotel.com.
Empress Hotel, Victoria, Canada
Afternoon tea at this century-old grand hotel is high on most Vancouver Island must-do lists, to the point where it's become a tourist cliche. Several daily seatings in three large rooms take up much of the ground floor.
The grandest of the rooms is the Tea Lobby, which raises the hotel's Edwardian decor to opulent heights and, at tables by the bay windows, has beautiful Inner Harbour views. Among the tea choices is the Empress Blend, made for the hotel with leaves from Kenya, China, India and Sri Lanka.
The Empress is part of the North American-focused Fairmont chain of hotels, which tend to be majestic, old-school affairs. Among the chain's best for Canadian afternoon teas are the Fairmont in Quebec City, where the chateau-like hotel dominates this atmospheric French outpost, and Lake Louise, which has spectacular views of a lake and the Rocky Mountains.
721 Government Street, Victoria, British Columbia, see fairmont.com.
St Regis Hotel, New York
The Plaza Hotel is usually the byword for afternoon tea in New York but the Palm Court, where it's served, is closed until later this year.
A good alternative is the art nouveau St Regis. Sit back and enjoy the frescoes high on the ceiling and a harpist's strummings in the Astor Court while savouring the fare, which has been given a twist. Several of the 20-plus teas are unusual house blends featuring fruit and herbs such as spiced plum and cornflowers. The six sandwiches include smoked-salmon roulade with lemon-chive butter on pumpernickel bread.
2 East 55th Street, at Fifth Avenue, New York, see StRegis.com/NewYork.
Paris is well known for its bistros and cafes but less familiar to outsiders are the city's salons de the, or tea salons. They have an extensive tea selections, sometimes numbering in the hundreds. Among the most impressive are the three Laduree salons and the two operated by venerable French tea company Mariage Freres, which has shops attached for tea purchases.
However, the salon du the I visited on my first trip to Paris remains my favourite. The golden glow of Angelina's belle epoque room, full of mirrors and little tables, has a different feel from the British tea tradition. There is no set menu, so make your own selection from the quintessentially French cakes – such as the Mont Blanc, a meringue, cream and chestnut puree confection. Angelina is also famous for its incredibly rich African hot chocolate.
226 rue de Rivoli, 1st arrondissement, Paris.
Alvear Palace Hotel, Buenos Aires
Another city not usually associated with tea is Buenos Aires but recently the tearooms inspired by 19th- and early 20th-century British migrants have been revived. Nowhere captures the tradition's niceties better than this 1930s hotel, which lives up to its name in Louis XVI and French Empire style.
Afternoon tea is served in the grand L'Orangerie restaurant and spills into the Jardin d'Hiver, an elegant plant- and light-filled conservatory.
The traditional fare is given robust, slightly, unexpected local twists, such as finger sandwiches filled with avocado and salsa, served on fine china and silver by white-gloved waiters. Even so, it's surprisingly inexpensive.
Avenida Alvear 1891, Buenos Aires, see alvearpalace.com.
Mount Nelson Hotel, South Africa
Set in splendid gardens at the foot of the imposing Table Mountain, this colonial-era establishment serves afternoon tea on the terrace and by the garden's fountain but the main event is in the lounge. It is a comfortably elegant and mostly white affair where all eyes are drawn to the huge buffet table loaded with sweet and savoury delights.
There are more than 30 quality teas, including the house blend, which comprises six local and exotic teas mixed with buds and petals from the garden's pink roses.
76 Orange Street, Cape Town, see mountnelson.co.za.
Raffles Hotel, Singapore
At this outpost of British colonialism, locally inspired morsels redolent of exotic South-East Asian spices sit beside traditional sweet and savoury treats.
Afternoon tea is served in the Tiffin Room, a serene white space where silver three-tiered cake stands are brought to your table by attentive, smartly uniformed waiters.
For a slightly less formal experience, try the buffet in the Bar and Billiard Room, which oozes colonial masculinity and has tropical garden views. Either way, it's a delicious escape from the heat and rush outside.
1 Beach Road, Singapore, raffles.com.