Tea tourism in London: Is the Aladdin-themed afternoon tea worth the hype?

Two months ago, a friend of mine who lives in London dropped me a message on Facebook with a link to a video I just had to watch – along with an “OMG” and “we have to do this!”.

I had already made plans to see her in London the following month and we had already made plans to do a whole bunch of stuff, including some kind of an afternoon tea event – although nothing was yet reserved. I knew she wouldn’t go “OMG” on me unless she’d discovered something beyond fantastic. It had to be borderline magical for her to use such an exaggerated statement. I mean, she’s French, and French people are not exactly known for going ga-ga over n’importe quoi.

Needless to say,  the video triggered my curiosity.

And her reaction was within reason. The video was an advertisement for an afternoon tea unlike anything I’d ever seen before. Gone were grandma’s tea sets, cream filled scones and dull rooms decorated in fifty shades of beige. Those were all replaced with purple, glittery walls and magic lamps as teapots. Welcome to Agrabah, I mean, Cutter & Squidge .

Welcome to a magical afternoon tea in Genie’s Cave!

There you are, sitting in a bakery in central London – yet, it doesn’t feel like that at all. Feels a lot more like having tea in a whole new world (see what I did there?) inside of the Disney universe.

“Should I make a reservation for us?”, my friend asked. Before I even finished watching the video I gave her a thumbs up. I needed this. I needed a little bit of magic in my life.

Fast forward to the day before our reservation in Genie’s Cave took place.

Pretty much as soon as I arrived in London, I was offered a cup of tea.

I was hungry, so I went to a fish and chips shop and was offered a cup of tea on the house while I was waiting for my fish to be cooked. Totally unexpected, very appreciated.

Now, if that ain’t British hospitality, I don’t know what is!

To me, this was a reminder of how tea is such an important part of British culture.

I wanted to honor this part of the culture. I wanted to experience tea in multiple ways. After all – don’t shoot me for saying this – but, I’ve always felt like afternoon tea events were just a full blown gimmick.

Yet, I wanted to experience it myself to see if it’s worth the money – and find out why people are so obsessed with it.

But I also wanted to drink tea where all the locals drink their tea (well, apart from in their homes) and I wanted to purchase high quality tea from the famous English brand Twinings and drink so much tea I’d be having tea running through my veins by the end of the week.

The Twinings Tea Shop and Museum  offers tea tastings so you’ll get to try before you buy and not end up with something that sounds like an amazing flavor but ends up being just one big disappointment in need of large quantities of sugar, honey or lemon in order to be consumed. Yes, Lipton cherry tea, I’m looking at you!

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A staff member poured me some tea and told me I could ask her anything, anything at all about their product range. I tasted (and purchased) green tea with a hint of dark chocolate and coconut, and green tea with a hint of caramelized apple.

“Do you sell these outside of the UK – and does your online shop offer international shipping?”, were the questions I asked, to which she answered no. Talk about exclusivity!

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Guess I have yet another reason to return to London then.

As if I hadn’t tasted enough tea that day, I was determined to find somewhere cozy to sit down and grab a cup of English breakfast tea to go with my lunch; a raspberry jam and cream filled scone.

I did find a nice little bakery called Fleet River Bakery where absolutely everything looked delicious. My eyes were begging me to order a big slice of delicious-looking chocolate cake, but I ordered a scone instead. Because, I didn’t come to England to eat something you can eat pretty much anywhere in the western world. No. I came for  a cup of tea. And a scone.

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The tea was just as good as anywhere else, and the scone was amazing. I’m usually not a fan of anything cream filled, but the acidity of the raspberry mixed with the sweetness of the cream complimented the taste of the tender scone. Everything was just perfect.

And then came the day I’d been waiting for. The Aladdin-themed afternoon tea. 

When entering the Cutter & Squidge you’d have no idea there’d be some kind of magical Genie stuff going on in the basement. The charming modern bakery invites you in with its beautiful cake display and butterfly decor. Pastel macaroons, picture perfect cakes and anything Pinterest and Instagram-worthy.

A pink haired shop assistant guided us downstairs to Genie’s Cave. We walked into a room way smaller than expected, with sparkly purple walls – just like in the video. Jewels, gems, golden coins and other treasures were glued to the walls and to the floor. The pink haired girl showed us to our table, asked us if we wanted Mimosas or Bellinis or whatever fancy cocktail brunch-goers drink these days. I don’t quite remember, and we were both fine with  just fruit juice and tea.

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As an appetizer we were offered yogurt with berries, cotton candy and meringue. Visually very pretty – and an oddly delicious combination of flavors and textures.

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Then came the dessert stand and the sandwich platter. My friend and I looked at each other with the same mixed reaction. It all looked so good, but… how on earth were we gonna be able to finish all of it?

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Guess what? We didn’t. We couldn’t. Once we were done with all the savory pieces, we were full. And we still had all these cute little desserts to finish. Even a chocolate dessert with 24 carat gold inside of it. Yup. Gold.

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I force-fed myself as I didn’t want any of the delicious goods to go to waste (and neither did my friend) and practically rolled out of the bakery and almost vomited on the street because I was so full after eating what felt like thousands of calories. I  felt like I was having a hangover from all the afternoon tea magic presented to me in Genie’s Cave.

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Now you may ask, is the Aladdin-themed afternoon tea worth the hype?

I think it depends on what kind of experience you’re looking for. If you’re not much of a big eater and you just wanna have a nice little meal in typical British surroundings and don’t care much about the “magical” aspect, you’ll be better off going to a bakery or a cafe and ordering tea and pastries of whatever quantity you like.

However, if you’re a big fan of Disney and everything magical (unicorn frappuccino crowd, where you at?) and you want to escape from reality into a world of purple glitter and more cake than you could possibly eat – this is definitely for you.

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I have yet to try a traditional style afternoon tea, and I am interested in trying, just so I can compare it to the Aladdin-themed one.

…And roll out of yet another bakery, hotel, restaurant or whatever establishment I’ll end up going to.

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5 times I was “rescued” by strangers abroad (and how you can avoid making my mistakes)

Whoever said being a solo traveler is easy and everything will go smoothly if you just believe in yourself, has obviously never been much of a traveler. Heck, even traveling with your best friend or your parents or even an organized group can be quite a bumpy ride. Life is – and never will be – smooth as butter.

Shitty situations can arise at anytime, anywhere, to anyone.

As much as I try to take the precaution of avoiding seedy neighborhoods, learning the train/tram/bus schedules by heart, trusting myself more than I trust my friends, learning the city maps instead of following my GPS blindly and making sure I have absolutely all the right documents printed – sometimes, I fail to do so. Sometimes I even fail to walk straight without tripping over my own two feet. Other times I fail to eat without spilling sauce everywhere (even in my hair), as if I was a little baby. Sometimes that’s exactly what I am. A big baby, naive and lost. And just like you’d rescue a crying baby lost in the big scary city, strangers often come to my rescue and guide me to safety and give me a blanket and a nice warm cup of cocoa.

Okay, nobody actually did that.

Except from that one time when I was 2 years old and ran away from home (naked) with the 2 year old boy next door (also naked) and the police found us in some old folks’ garden party and gave us blankets to stay warm while driving us back to our parents.

I guess, already as a 2 year old I was ready to explore the world. These days, I usually travel with my clothes on, but I still manage to get lost and get myself into tricky situations and end up being “rescued”.

Here are five anecdotes from my travels. These are tributes to locals who could have walked away, but decided to help a stranger in need. These are people I will remember for the rest of my life, because of their kindness and selflessness. 

The Colmar Teenagers

The most recent of these stories, happened only a week ago, in Colmar – a beautiful and fairytalesque town in the Alsace region in France. My mother, her friend and I were staying at a hotel in Strasbourg, another town in the same region. We made plans to take the train to Colmar and stay there for the fireworks display and celebrate Bastille Day, drink Pinot Gris (delicious white wine) and eat Alcasian cuisine, do a bit of shopping and take hundreds of photos of the colorful half-timbered houses and bridges decorated with beautiful flowers. Little did we know how much of a fairy tale we were getting ourselves into. While my mother and her friend trusted in me leading us back to the train station from the location of the fireworks, I relied on my GPS to take us there. Big mistake.

My GPS started acting up and guided us in the complete opposite direction. No wonder I didn’t recognize any of the streets, the buildings, nothing. To make matters worse, my phone was dying. We had no other choice than asking strangers for help with directions or maybe help us call a cab. “Excuse me?”, I asked an elderly couple (in French). They ignored us. I tried again.

This time I asked a boy and a girl who didn’t look a day over eighteen.

They listened. And told us what we already knew; the train station was in the complete opposite direction and we’d never be able to make there in time for the last train back to Strasbourg. Worried, I asked the boy if he could help us call a cab, as my phone was dying. He explained to us that calling a cab would be useless. By the time a cab would get here, we’d already miss our train. “My car is parked nearby. We can take you to the station, if you want”, the boy suggested. We really didn’t except this. Especially not from an age-group who is unfairly labeled as selfish.

They took us to the station, offered to drive us to Strasbourg (free of charge) if we didn’t make it there in time, followed us to the platform and made sure we made it onto the train. Colmar does not only look like a fairy tale town. Some of its people are everyday heroes, just like those you read about in the storybooks.

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The Minneapolis Mom

While living in Florida, I spent most of my weekends off traveling to other states – even those on the complete opposite part of the country. I wanted to see as much as possible while staying in the US on a work  visa. And at one point, curiosity brought me to Minnesota. More specifically Minneapolis (and Bloomington, to visit Mall of America). One day, while wandering around downtown Minneapolis, my GPS acted up (there seems to be a pattern here). I wanted to go back to my hotel, but my GPS guided me to the complete opposite part of town instead, and lead me to believe that I was on a good path. Little did I know that I was on the path to a somewhat dangerous neighborhood. Little did I know that Minneapolis even HAD a neighborhood that would be considered “dangerous”.

While getting more and more lost, I was starting to get attention from men who could easily tell I wasn’t from around there. Some were just staring, others were catcalling. I’m not even gonna get started on what level of vocabulary they were using.

A forty-something year old woman with two kids, pulled over. “Darlin’, are you lost?”, she asked. She looked genuinely concerned. I told her about my problem with my GPS and asked her for directions to the hotel I was staying at.

“Oh lord. The reception here is terrible. No wonder you’re lost. And your hotel..Honey, you can’t get there by foot. It’s too far away. Complete opposite part of town!”

She offered to drive me to the hotel. No, I wouldn’t normally get in the car with a complete stranger like that, but considering she had her kids with her, I decided to trust my instinct on this one. And I’m glad I did. The lady was lovely – so were her children – and my day ended on a good note.

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The lady and the tramp in San Diego

After a lovely week spent visiting San Diego as a solo traveler, I packed my bags and headed to the Greyhound bus station to take a bus to Las Vegas where I’d made plans to meet some friends of mine to celebrate my friend’s birthday over a steamy Chippendale’s Show and drinks. Although San Diego had been great and I’d eaten my own weight in Tex-Mex and tanned myself into a less pale version of myself, I was ready to commit seven sins in Vegas.

Arriving at the station, I was certain I’d printed every document needed. Turned out, I had printed the wrong thing. I guess I forgot to read the fine print.

“Ma’am, this is not a ticket. You need to print your ticket”. I browsed through my emails and realized I had printed the wrong attached file. How stupid of me. I asked her if I could just show the ticket as a PDF on my phone instead of the printed version. “No, ma’am. We need to collect the printed documents. There’s a library just around the corner. They have printers”. I knew where the library was. It was not ‘just around the corner’ but a five minute walk. Five minutes are precious when you’re about to miss the bus.

“But… What if I email the document to your email address, and then YOU can print it from here. I’ll obviously pay for it”, I cried. My tears were worthless to her. She shook her head and smiled “No, Ma’am. I can’t do that. Go to the library. Now. Before you miss your bus”.

I was left with no other choice than going to the library. Which, by the way, didn’t open before 9 am. The departure time of my bus was 9:15. I was screwed. I had no way of making it to Vegas, and I knew it. I broke down crying in front of everybody who were waiting in line for the library to open.

At first I was crying because I’d miss the bus. Then I cried even louder because I felt like a spoiled brat crying over first world problems. What a misery.

A lady in her forties walked up to me to comfort me. So did a homeless man who had been sitting nearby, begging strangers for a little money so he could buy himself some breakfast. Neither of them could do anything to help me, but they listened to me, they comforted me and they both waited next to me while I called my mother to ask her if she could book me another bus ticket. She booked me a plane ticket instead. A co-worker in Florida had a daughter who lived in San Diego, who happened to be off from work that day. She drove me to the airport.

I guess in this situation, my mother, my co-worker and my co-worker’s daughter were all the biggest heroes. Still, the lady and the homeless man both deserve to be praised for their selfless act of kindness and compassion.

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The bag-man in London

London is a perfect place to go shopping if you’re from a country where everything is ten times more expensive than in good old Britain, and frankly, I can’t walk through Camden market without buying a couple of bits and pieces here and there. What I should have known then – that I know now – is the importance of a solid, high quality suitcase to carry all those items in. And you might wanna be careful when buying those things at a market. If a price sounds too good to be true, there’s usually a reason for it. Exactly how that bargain dress from eBay turned out to look like a cheap version of your grandma’s curtains or your toddler’s fancy dress costumes. My leopard print suitcase was just like that. Why on earth I wanted something leopard print is another question I ask myself a lot. I’ll blame it on Spice Girls and nostalgia.

The tacky leopard print suitcase lasted three hours before it decided to fall apart. Unknowingly, I wandered the streets of London with my bright new suitcase used for my shopping spree, and a nice old backpack on my back, carrying all my other essentials for the weekend.

And then the unthinkable happened. Half of a wheel fell off. Half. The other half was still spinning around for a little while before it followed its other half and abandoned me. How odd. I decided to lift and carry my suitcase instead, as it was pretty much impossible to drag it around with only one wheel.

Bad idea. The handle came off and my suitcase fell straight to the ground and now had a major hole in it, from where the handle was attached. This was officially the shittiest  suitcase I’d ever seen. Period. I tried to hold the suitcase with both arms, to hold onto all my things and balance it up and down staircases and while rushing down the busy streets of the city. I walked into the nearest shop and asked the shopkeeper if I could buy the largest bags he had, from him. He took one look at my suitcase and seemed quite surprised with how this could possibly even happen. He gave me two enormous plastic bags (same size as those found in IKEA) and said “take them, for free. And buy yourself a better suitcase”. You betcha, I did.

He may not have been a hero, per se, but he sure made my day a whole lot easier.

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The LGBT family in Birmingham

Another one from England. I was never a tourist in Birmingham. I actually stayed there as an expat for a year and a half. But expat-stories still count. And this one is worth mentioning.

While staying in Birmingham, I often went to nightclubs with my friends there. After all, I was nineteen, and this is how a lot of nineteen year old’s spend their Saturday nights. Another thing that is sadly quite common when you’re nineteen, is having unreliable friends who’ll break whatever promises they had with you, if something better comes along. And that’s exactly what happened the one time I didn’t have enough money with me to take a taxi home, because I’d made plans to sleep at my friends’ house and was absolutely certain I wouldn’t need some kind of backup-plan. Turns out, I was wrong.

My friend took off with some guy and left me stranded outside of the club. I didn’t know any of the other people who were there, and I had no idea what to do. A girl sensed that I was sad and confused, and asked me if I needed help with anything.

I told her what happened, and she offered to let me stay at her house, together with her and her friends. “It’s my parents house, but they’re not home. They’re on holiday. If you don’t have to leave to early in the morning, I’ll cook us all a nice breakfast. If you like bacon and cheese sandwiches, that is”, she smiled. How lovely was she? How could I possibly turn down an offer like that? Again, I trusted my instinct and joined them.

The girl told me the story of her parents and how a lot of people had been mean and judgmental towards her while growing up. Her mother and father got divorced when she was a child, and the mother later came out as gay and had since been in a relationship with a lovely woman who was a great stepmother to the girl. I noticed a couple of photos of the two, on the fridge. Along with some old photos of the girl herself.

“I like both. Girls and blokes. People think it’s because of my mom, but it’s not”, she said and poured us all a cup of tea. We changed the subject and talked about music and movies until we were all too tired to stay up any longer.

The only thing I found strange in all of this, was drinking tea at 4 am. But that seems to be quite a normal thing in Britain.

If this girl hadn’t invited me to stay at her place, who knows what would happen if I’d have to walk all the way back to the house I was staying in – which was a one hour walk from the club, and near an infamous “red light area” (Gillott road, if you’re a local reading this).

Even though I’m now left with these amazing memories of everyday heroes, I might not always be as lucky. Your good Samaritan might not always be at the right place, at the right time – and who knows what would happen in a worst case scenario!

My advice is:

  • Always have some extra cash on you in case you need to take a taxi somewhere.
  • Studying a map and memorizing it is better than relying on your GPS.
  • When buying a suitcase or a backpack, quality matters. It might be expensive, but it’s an investment! You don’t wanna end up picking up your stuff from all across the street because you bought something cheap and useless!
  • Tell your friends and/or family members where you’re staying, who you’re staying with and keep them updated when bad things happen.
  • Use Facebook groups/communities for solo travelers to ask for help/advice when you’re lost, abandoned by your peers – stuck in whatever situation where you need help from locals!
  • I also recommend to write down the address and phone number of your embassy in the country you are visiting, in case your problems are way more severe than any of this!

Good luck – and safe travels!

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