Top Ten Places to Have Tea


Ladies, don your gowns; gents, start pressing your ties. Afternoon tea at the Ritz is a splendid formal affair: silver pots and fine china chink at 4pm sharp under the vaulted glass and chandeliers of the Palm Court. It’s not cheap, but you’ll be in good company – this venerable hotel has served exotic infusions to everyone from King Edward VII to Charlie Chaplin. If the budget won’t stretch, try alternative institutions: the organization Classic Cafes champions the Formica-countered greasy spoons of the 1950s, a dwindling number of which are still serving brews in vintage surrounds. Tie not required.


Nonstop, the epic Moscow-Beijing train journey takes over six days. The best way to spend them is befriending your carriage mates – Russian businesspeople, Mongolian traders, Buddhist monks. Each car has a samovar, a hot-water urn where you can top up your mug to ward off the Siberian chill. Samovars are more than kettles: entrenched in Russian society, they’re made for communal drinking. The local saying ‘to have a sit by the samovar’ means to talk leisurely over endless cups of tea. Fill your flask – and those of your new-found friends – and watch Europe roll into Asia.


Mate is the national beverage – and a national obsession – across sacross swathes of South America, drunk by all, from city-dwellers to pampas-drifting cowboys. Made from the dried leaves of the yerba mate plant, it was, according to the Guarani people, delivered to humans by the moon goddess in thanks for saving her from a jaguar. To join in you need to get the right gear: a silver bombilla (infusion straw) and accompanying guampa (gourd). Tuck these into your saddlebag and set off on a jaunt with the gauchos: this ‘liquid vegetable’ will keep you riding and cattle-driving through the night.


Ever since a tea leaf allegedly floated into Emperor Shennong’s cup of hot water around 2700 BC, the Chinese have extolled the beverage’s virtues, medicinal and social. For a brew above others, head to Junshan Island, an atoll of bamboo and woodland set on Dongting Lake, a 45-minute sail from Yueyang. Home to a unique golden tortoise, the island also nurtures a clutch of bushes that produce the exclusive silver-needle tea, one of China’s rarest, beloved of rulers past and alleged to contain life-extending powers.


There’s no such thing as a quick cuppa in the North African desert. For local nomads, tea drinking requires patience and dedication. Each sitting involves not one but three rounds, each with a distinctive flavor. ‘The first is strong like love, the second bitter like life, the third one sweet as death’, the adage goes. This isn’t about thirst-quenching – it’s about forging friendships in carpet-lined tents over dainty glasses. Laze under the date palms of Mauritania’s Terjit Oasis or head out into the sand sea from Ghat, Libya, to find traditional brewers – and leave yourself plenty of time.


Temple-strewn Uji is the tea capital of Japan. Green tea – which grows here abundantly – finds its way into everything, from the traditional wooden boxes lining the shop shelves to soba noodles and ice-cream cones. To understand the importance of the drink, however, you must attend a traditional chanoyu (tea ceremony). In the tiny, tatami-matted rooms of the Taiho-an Tea House, kimono-clad women will serve you with studied formality. The ritual – involving beautiful utensils, delicate pouring and effusive appreciation on your part – is the only thing more important than the drink itself.


You’re at 4000-plus meters, hemmed in by high peaks and gasping for breath but determined to make it to the Inca marvel of Machu Picchu. What you need is coca tea. Beloved by Andeans the length of the range, this bitter brew wins no flavor contests but its raw ingredients, coca leaves (also the basis of cocaine), increase oxygen absorption into the blood. It’s nature’s answer to altitude sickness. And what better place to try it than huddled on a mountainside, in a valley flecked with Inca ruins, under an unobscured galaxy of stars.


In 1773, a band of angry Bostonians stormed three docked British ships, throwing the boats’ precious cargo – about 24 million cups’ worth of tea – overboard. The plaque commemorating the fracas now sits between Congress and Purchase Streets, but better to visit the grand Old South Meeting House, where the protestors were whipped to a frenzy by Samuel Adams all those years ago. Or, for a more modern cuppa, head to Ming’s Market. This Chinese emporium offers hundreds of teas, purporting to cure everything from simple pimples to troubles of a more intimate nature.


It’ll start on the train there – the call of the chai wallahs pacing the platforms, hawking their masala-spiced nectar. But that’s nothing compared to Darjeeling itself. Once you switch to the narrow-gauge steam train that hauls up to this 2000m-odd hill station you’re surrounded by the stuff: tea in the cafes, tea in the bazaars and a deep-green leafy profusion of tea cascading down the hillsides, with the might of the Himalaya behind. Between April and November (picking and processing season) take a plantation tour and marvel at what goes into a humble tea bag.


Hover above south-central Sri Lanka and all you’ll see is green. The cool highlands have been blanketed by tea plantations since the late 19th century – with just splashes of rainbow-sari-clad pickers disrupting the color scheme. Nuwara Eliya is a good place for a quality brew and, with its 18-hole golf course and country club, can seem more British than, well, a cup of tea. To get in among the action take to the trails in the Bogawantalawa Valley, where you can walk or cycle between old planters’ villas and pluck a few leaves for yourself.