“Would you like an adventure now, or would you like to have your tea first?”
~J.M. Barrie, The Adventures of Peter Pan
Finding a special café for taking a break between sightseeing outings is a great way to discover some local flavor while getting ready for the next stop. Sometimes it’s a place that I simply happen upon. It looks inviting and interesting and worth a try. Other places I have read about ahead of time, and I make a plan to seek them out, organizing my sightseeing around their location. Here are four favorites that made a lasting impression:
1. A.C. Perch’s Thehandel ~ Copenhagen, Denmark.
Tucked away in Copenhagen’s old city center, A.C. Perch’s Thehandel feels like a step back in time. Part tea shop, part tea room, Perch’s dates back to 1835, and it’s an easy place to imagine life more than a century ago.
The shop downstairs is an enchanting little space that holds only a few customers at a time. A long counter lines the back wall, with bins and bins and bins of every imaginable loose tea. I picked out several tins from a basket, handed them to the salesgirl and watched her carefully weigh and pack my selections. Before closing the tins, she tucked a card inside that gave instructions for brewing time. Then, what seemed magical me, she tied yarn around each tin and finished it off with a little wood dowel – the “tea handle,” which was used to carry the tea home, she said, “in the days before plastic bags.”
The tea room is above the shop, around a corner and reached by an exterior staircase. A table by the window was waiting for us – I had made a reservation online before we left home, as recommended on Perch’s website – and was set with white dishes. It was a warm and welcoming little respite, friendly and unpretentious. My husband Herb and I chose our teas from a menu that seemed as extensive as the selections downstairs and ordered scones with strawberry jam, lemon curd and clotted cream. The menu items, which also included finger sandwiches, were classically English, but the tea room felt very Danish Modern. It was a charming complement to the shop downstairs and some of the finest tea I’ve ever tasted.
2. La Tarte Tropézienne ~ Saint-Tropez, France.
The welcoming brown awning and balconied windows looked like a promising place to take a break on a rainy day in Saint-Tropez. But it was the array of delicious-looking pastries, temptingly displayed by the front door, that immediately drew Herb and me inside. La Tarte Tropézienne, we soon learned, is a bit of an institution on the French Riviera. Established in 1955, it became famous for a brioche with cream filling that was named “la tarte tropézienne” by French actress Brigitte Bardot.
We had pastries and cappuccino at a small café table upstairs, and were so taken with the place that we returned later that day for lunch. Same table. Same deliciousness. It was one of those cozy, wonderful days that stays with you for a long time.
As we were paying at the downstairs register, I noticed some stunning tea canisters from a Paris company called Mariage Frères. Admittedly taken with the packaging even though I hadn’t tried the tea at the cafe, I picked up a few for gifts and one for myself. I was disappointed that they didn’t carry my favorite English Breakfast and opted instead for French Breakfast. A week later when we were home, I opened the tea, smelled the tea and then tasted the tea and felt incredibly foolish over my disappointment that it wasn’t English Breakfast. Mariage Frères French Breakfast was fabulous beyond words – a new favorite and a memorable discovery at La Tarte Tropézienne.
3. The Pierre Chocolaterie ~ Tallinn, Estonia.
It’s impossible to leave Tallinn, Estonia, without using the word “charming” at least once. Estonia’s capital on the Baltic Sea is a combination of modern city and medieval Old Town, with cobblestone streets, red-roofed buildings and a castle that offers panoramic views beyond the sea. It’s a perfect place to walk and explore.
The most charming among all the charming we experienced there was The Pierre Chocolaterie, a small cafe nestled in a courtyard called Meistrite Hoov – Masters’ Courtyard. A virtual ghost town in 1991 when the Soviet occupation ended, Meistrite Hoove has been reborn with shops, music and The Pierre.
Herb and I carefully stepped through a tall wooden threshold and into a small room with a wonderfully aromatic display of chocolates and desserts. We placed our order and headed back outside to find a table in the courtyard. Our tiramisu and chocolate samplings were served on a colorful china plate and presented as if we were at a five-star restaurant. My cappuccino was perfectly hot and topped with a beautiful leaf design. A glorious tree offered umbrella-like shade, and live musicians entertained the diners. It truly felt as if all was well with the world. And for that moment on a sunny day in Tallin, Estonia, it was.
4. Miss Zhao’s English Blacktea & Book Shop ~ Gulangyu Island, Xiamen, China.
Every trip has its unexpected surprise, and on our cruise from Hong Kong to Beijing, it was Gulangyu Island. Just off the coast of Xiamen – population two million – Gulangyu Island is a popular resort destination for Chinese citizens, accessible to the mainland by a short ferry ride. Herb and I decided to explore it on our own, and even with the language barrier, we figured out where to go, how to buy our ferry tickets and how to navigate the crowds.
Once off the ferry and past the signs for KFC and McDonald’s, we entered another world. British colonial architecture, winding streets and lush gardens greeted us as we made our way around the island. There were no cars – only electric trams that featured guided tours in Mandarin. Despite the overcast skies of our early spring visit, it had a relaxing vacation vibe.
The highlight of the day was stumbling upon Miss Zhao’s English Blacktea & Book Shop, a place that felt more like studying at a library than taking a break from touring. The little shop served two teas – English Breakfast and Earl Grey. There were bookshelves all around, with subject headings in English and Mandarin, but with books only in Mandarin. It was an interesting spot to unwind and gear up for our trip back to Xiamen.
The ferry was still crowded as we headed back to the mainland. We made our way to the shuttle stop and rode through the big, modern city to our ship. Gulangyu Island was a quick ferry trip from Xiamen, but after our day there, it seemed very far away.