Our server gave me a little book explaining the heritage of afternoon tea, and I learned that the practice harkened back to the 1840's when Anna, the Duchess of Bedford, couldn't wait for the 8 p.m. dinner hour and began requesting a cup of tea and a little cake each afternoon at 4 p.m. to tide her over. The habit stuck and then became a trend, which is now a British institution.
The aristocratic pleasure of afternoon tea naturally found its way into the first-class sections of the great ocean liners. As cruising replaced crossings in the 20th century, the ritual was retained as an example of the sort of tradition one might not have the time to keep up on land but that could still be enjoyed aboard ship.
Even as an adult, I still find afternoon tea to be a special event, and I never turn down the chance to enjoy the ritual aboard a cruise ship. I'm not alone. Many cruise travelers take enjoyment from the simple pleasures of sipping tea from delicate cups and savoring bite-size treats on a sea day afternoon. Several lines offer a wide variety of cruise ship tea services, including luxury line offerings with white-gloved waiters and china tea cups, casual DIY buffets with a handful of tea bags and cookies on mainstream lines and more unique offerings like Indonesian Tea, Champagne High Tea and "tea" (read: apple juice served from a pot) with Disney princesses.
Some cruise lines do afternoon tea better than others, and on many ships, these midday repasts are true cruise highlights. Here are the 10 best afternoon teas on cruises that are not to be missed.
The Setting: Celebrity knows how to pull out all the stops for its Champagne High Tea. Served once during seven-night cruises and at least twice on longer itineraries, it really is a voyage highlight. The location differs depending on which ship you're sailing, but it most often takes place in one of the specialty restaurants. You'll be greeted with a glass of bubbly and the lovely musical stylings of a live string quartet. Before you sink into the lap of luxury, though, pull out your camera because you'll want to snap a few pictures. Each table is topped with fine linens, Wedgewood china and Riedel crystal. You'll feel as if you've stepped into the tearoom at Windsor Palace!
The Spread: Dapper waitstaff serve a selection of premium Champagnes; tea from Tea Forte; coffee, espresso, lattes, and cappuccino from Lavazza; savory sandwiches; and desserts, including pastries, scones, truffles and pate de fruit.
Child Friendly? There is no separate children's menu, so this event is best for sophisticated 'tweens and adults.
Free or Fee? Champagne High Tea costs $25 per person. (Hint: If you and your wallet are not in the mood for a full-scale afternoon tea experience, visit the buffet at 4 p.m. where you'll find complimentary scones and tea sandwiches to pair with your free tea.)
The Setting: Passengers look forward to traditional and themed tea events like Mozart Tea with waiters dressed in period costumes of velvet, brocade and lace; English Colonial Tea, where waiters are decked out in white ties and tails; and Chocolate Tea aboard Crystal ships. Afternoon tea is offered daily on both Serenity and Symphony at 3:30 p.m. in the Palm Court. Waiters pour tea at your table while you help yourself from extensive buffet selections.
The Spread: The list of available teas is long, so try something a bit out-of-the-ordinary like "leaves of Provence" black tea or a ginger twist herbal concoction. Sandwiches, cheese and fruit are served along with traditional pastries and specialties like warm Viennese apple streudel and chocolate tart.
Child Friendly? Children are welcome to attend.
Free or Fee? All tea events are complimentary.
The Setting: Cunard's claim to fame rests squarely on its upper-crust British heritage, and teatime aboard its ships is legendary. Tea is held daily, with the exception of embarkation day, from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m. in various locations across its fleet, including its crystal chandelier-clad ballrooms and intimate Grill lounges. The queue starts early for this event, so set your watch, or you may miss out.
The Spread: Teas on offer are from Twinings and Wedgewood, and the onboard tea sommelier will help you decipher the menu. Favorites include mint, celon, jasmine and orange pekoe. An enticing array of sandwiches is presented to take the edge off your hunger; offerings include salmon cream cheese, roast beef with horseradish and shrimp salad. They're followed by scones with clotted cream and jam, and then it's on to pastries like black forest cake, fruit tarts and eclairs.
Child Friendly? There is no specific children's menu, but the kids are sure to enjoy some of the pastries.
Free or Fee? It's complimentary.
Disney Cruise Line
The Setting: During seven-night (or longer) sailings, the cruise line offers "Tea with Your Disney Friends" on Disney Magic and Disney Wonder. This is no Mad Hatter's tea party. Families gather for an afternoon snack while favorite Disney characters tell stories, sign autographs and pose for pictures. (While Disney Cruise Line used to offer High Tea in its adult-only Palo restaurant, the cruise line cut this option in late July 2012 in favor of extending brunch hours in the restaurant.)
The Spread: Apple juice and ice tea are served in little teapots alongside chocolate chip cookies.
Child Friendly? Absolutely! "Tea with Your Disney Friends" is a fun opportunity for kids to learn proper tea etiquette.
Free or Fee? The children's tea event is complimentary, but space is limited, and reservations must be made in advance.
Holland America Line
The Setting: Holland America actually offers three different tea events, each occurring once during 7- to 10-night sailings: Royal Dutch Tea, Indonesian Tea and the whimsical Cupcake Tea. You'll head to the dining room for each event.
The Spread: Royal Dutch Tea is, perhaps, what you'd picture when thinking about traditional afternoon tea. Tea sandwiches, pastries and desserts are featured buffet-style, and tea is served at your table once you've prepared your plate of goodies.
Be sure to also set your sights on Indonesian Tea. There, the staff don traditional batik Indonesian outfits, and the recorded background music -- played by an angklung, a traditional instrument of the region -- sets the exotic mood. Teas on offer include Indonesian green, black and jasmine tea. If you prefer coffee, you may choose between sumatra and celebes. An assortment of sweets, from banana and mango fritters to sweet coconut rice balls and chocolate rice sponge cake, are served.
Finally, you must check out HAL's Cupcake Tea, which features a variety of teas and 10 -- count 'em, 10! -- different types of cupcakes, including chocolate, vanilla and even bread pudding. Find your inner child with a sip of milk, either plain or flavored with chocolate or strawberry. Tea and coffee is served tableside.
Child Friendly? Children are welcome to all events, but they would especially enjoy the Cupcake Tea.
Free or Fee? All tea experiences are complimentary.
The Setting: Oceania Cruises is a Cruise Critic member favorite for afternoon tea -- and with good reason. The line offers teatime every day at 4 p.m. in Horizons, an observation lounge with dramatic floor-to-ceiling windows that afford inspiring, panoramic views. Waiters transform this venue into a traditional tearoom with linen-topped tables, fine china and silver. A classical string quartet plays discretely in the background.
The Spread: Oceania's pastry chefs look forward to afternoon tea almost as much as you do. They craft an ever-changing menu of finger sandwiches, colorful (and tasty) petit fours, moist scones and sinful desserts, which are served on four-tiered pastry carts along with an equally compelling selection of tea.
Child Friendly? There's no specific children's menu, but kids are welcome to attend.
Free or Fee? It's free.
The Setting: P&O Cruises caters mainly to British clientele, so it's no wonder that you can get a fine cup of tea aboard any of its ships. Afternoon tea has become an art on these vessels, and it's offered daily (with the exception of embarkation day) at 4 p.m. in the main dining room. Tables are each topped with white linens, china and a silver cake stand.
The Spread: P&O waiters serve a wide selection of finger sandwiches, traditional homemade British cakes, biscuits and fruit tartlets, as well as plain and flavored scones with jam, butter and Devonshire clotted cream. You'll also enjoy toasted teacakes and warm English crumpets. Twinings specialty loose-leaf teas are served, including traditional afternoon, English breakfast, Earl Grey, assam, darjeeling and lapsang souchong.
Child Friendly? Children are welcome on P&O's child-friendly ships, but there's no special menu for them.
Free or Fee? Afternoon tea is complimentary. (Alcoholic beverages -- including Champagne, prosecco and Pimm's No. 1 -- are available for a by-the-glass charge.)
Regent Seven Seas Cruises
The Setting: Regent's trio of ships -- Seven Seas Mariner, Seven Seas Navigator and Seven Seas Voyager -- offers afternoon tea daily at 4 p.m. The event is held in various lounges, for example the Horizon Lounge on Voyager or Galileo's Lounge on Navigator. A Regent "signature" musician (pianist, guitarist, etc.) is generally on hand to entertain throughout tea service, although sometimes staff will host friendly but competitive trivia sessions during that hour.
The Spread: Regent teatime always features goodies like finger sandwiches, cookies, pastries and a variety of teas and coffee. However, there are also additional themed delicacies like a crepe or cupcake buffet or Regent's chocolate teatime with an array of chocolate desserts.
Child Friendly? Children are welcome.
Free or Fee? Afternoon tea is complimentary with open seating, and reservations are not required.
The Setting: Held daily in the Observation Lounge at 4 p.m., except on embarkation day, Seabourn's afternoon tea is a don't-miss. Waitstaff will seat you at a table set with china and silver and take your tea order. You're then free to peruse the buffet tables and help yourself to treats.
The Spread: It's evident that a true tea connoisseur developed the menu for Seabourn's ships. The line serves tea from the Mighty Leaf Tea Company. The offerings are extensive and include gems like African amber, organic mint melange, ginger twist, mandarin rose petal, Himalayan peak darjeeling and acai black tea. Finger sandwiches, scones, pastries, cookies, cakes and more are served alongside the tea. Sandwiches of special note are the marinated shrimp salad on focaccia and the roast beef, remoulade and cornichon croissant. On the dessert spectrum, favorites include apple mascarpone cheesecake, chocolate peanut butter ganache tart and apricot cake.
Child Friendly? Children are welcome.
Free or Fee? It's complimentary.
The Setting: Silversea stands out because you can enjoy full afternoon tea in your suite. Butler service is standard for every suite aboard Silversea ships, so you may as well keep the staff busy with this request. Tea may be served with caviar and blinis, foie gras terrine with brioche, Alaska crab claws with dip, and cheese and crackers. Speak with your butler, and he'll run down all your options.
Of course, you shouldn't miss the public afternoon tea that's served daily at 4 p.m. Depending on which ship you're sailing, head to the Panorama Lounge, La Terrazza or The Bar. White-glove service and entertainment, usually in the form of a pianist, await you.
The Spread: Ronnefeldt is Silversea's tea purveyor, and it offers a variety of blends like green darjeeling, rose hip and chamomile. Afternoon tea kicks off with platters of sandwiches, including smoked salmon with cream cheese, chicken salad, roast beef, and cucumber and cream cheese. Your waiter will then serve a variety of pastries, including chocolate surprise and fruit tarts, along with scones with clotted cream and jam.
Child Friendly? No. Silversea does not cater to children.
Free or Fee? It's complimentary, no reservations are required, and it's open seating.
--by Andrea M. Rotondo, Cruise Critic Contributor