We had barely settled into our suites at the five-star Royal Crescent Hotel & Spa in Bath, England, when we were ushered into the Montagu Bar & Champagne Lounge for afternoon tea.
"Here is your flight of Taittinger Champagne," the waiter said, serving each of us glasses of brut, rose and sec, followed in quick succession by tiered trays of finger sandwiches, tiny portions of mousses and cold soups and plates of minidesserts, from iced buns and cakes to macarons and tartlets. Nontraditional tea fare includes vegan options and espresso drinks for the coffee drinkers among us. There's also a Grey Goose martini flight and a Sipsmith gin flight for afternoon teas of an entirely different sort.
According to general manager Jonathan Stapleton, reinventing the classic tea is part of what the hotel is all about as it celebrates its traditions — more than 250 years' worth — while not being afraid to adapt with the times.
The hotel offers afternoon tea with Champagne.
The history of the property tells its own story. Its prime spot overlooks Victoria Park in the center of a famous semicircle of buildings that date to the mid-1700s. The crescent was originally designed as private homes by John Wood, the Younger, a key figure in 18th-century Georgian architecture. About 1950, No. 16 Royal Crescent morphed into a guesthouse. In later years an adjacent home was added to the property, and in 1971 the guesthouse was officially reborn as the Royal Crescent Hotel & Spa. Over the years the hotel snapped up more bits of adjacent gardens -- it now boasts an entire acre -- as well as stables and outbuildings.
The property, which has been operated by Topland Group since 2012, was refurbished in 2014 with an eye to preserving its history while offering a fresh ambience more in keeping with today's travel trends.
The result is a serene retreat from the bustle of the city, whose center is about 15 minutes away by foot. The hotel entrance is deliberately understated, but once inside you feel like you're in another world.
Private gardens form the center of the property, and they are surrounded by 45 rooms and suites located in the main mansion and in former coach houses.
There also is a Garden Villa with two suites and two deluxe rooms and set in a private walled garden. The villa is pet-friendly and is popular with families, although there also is a Family Master Bedroom in the Pavilion building, which can accommodate two adults and two children.
Another key feature is the Spa and Bath House, which was renovated in 2016 and beckons with an iridescent-blue, 40-foot, heated indoor pool; a Vitality whirlpool; a Himalayan salt sauna; steam-inhalation room with eucalyptus and menthol; and a Taittinger Spa Garden, where guests can enjoy a post-treatment glass of bubbly.
As to dining, there is more on offer here than afternoon tea. The Dower House restaurant serves fine dining under the direction of executive head chef David Campbell. An all-day dining menu also is available as a further nod to contemporary trends.
A costumed hawker and a waxwork Jane Austen entice passersby to visit the Jane Austen Centre exhibition in Bath. Photo Credit: Felicity Long
Pride, prejudice and public baths
Of course, part of the draw of the property is its location in the city of Bath, whose two most notable claims to fame are its ancient public baths and Jane Austen.
We experienced the former by visiting the astonishingly well-preserved Roman Baths, an interactive experience that brings the ancient world to life with a mix of videos superimposed on Roman ruins, artifacts and remnants of the baths themselves. You can combine your visit with a few hours at the Thermae Bath Spa, a modern facility with thermal waters, spa treatments and a restaurant.
We took the notion a step further with a midday break at the Cross Bath. The open-air, oval bath, set in the site of a former temple to a Celtic goddess, is fed by thermal waters from a glass-domed fountain and is surrounded by ancient stone walls. There is a changing room outfitted with robes and slippers. Packages, which are limited to no more than 10 people, can include Champagne and a light picnic.
The other key figure in Bath history is Austen, author of "Pride and Prejudice," whose roots in the city were both personal and literary.
When I was in college visiting Bath for the first time, tracing Austen's legacy took some digging, but nowadays she's everywhere. The Jane Austen Centre is hard to miss, thanks to a waxwork likeness of the author at the entrance and a costumed character from one of her books who beckons to passersby from the sidewalk. The Pump Room in the Abbey Church Yard, the locations for some of her literary intrigues, is also worth a visit for a spot of afternoon tea.
To take in the other historical charms of the city, we embarked on a walking tour with Sulis Tours, followed by lunch at the Chequers, a gastropub that dates from the 1700s, and dinner at Clayton's Kitchen, which is overseen by Michelin-starred chef Robert Clayton.
To help guests get the most of their visit to Bath, the Royal Crescent Hotel & Spa is partnering with Around & About Bath, a boutique tour guide company that specializes in giving people an insider's glimpse of lesser-known areas of the city. During our tour with founder Jules Mittra, we experienced a dine-around and pub crawl that took us to three pubs, a 17th-century inn for dinner and a late-night walk through the village of Lacock, a filming location for "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince."
The Royal Crescent Hotel & Spa is also an ambassador for the new, 125-mile Great West Way touring route, which runs along a corridor west of London to Bristol, taking in key sights in the country's South West region. The route, which was launched in November, is accessible by foot, car, bus, rail and boat.