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The Tea Experience in Charlottesville, Virginia

By Stacey Norwood

Looking every inch the stately country manor it is, Clifton Inn sits less than 5 miles and 10 minutes away from what is undoubtedly the most-famous residence in all of Albemarle County, Virginia.

Clifton and Monticello, it turns out, are linked by more than the fence-lined roads and pastoral countryside that make the short but picturesque drive from one to the other so pleasant. The heritage of Virginia and some of its leading citizens connect the two as well. While Monticello was famously home to founding father and statesman Thomas Jefferson, it is a lesser-known fact that Clifton was once part of Edgehill, the 350-acre esate built by Jefferson’s only surviving daughter, Martha, and her husband, Thomas Mann Randolph.

The structure that now houses seven guest suites and rooms—garden rooms and livery cottages are also available on the property—is built on the stone foundation of what is believed to be a warehouse constructed by Randolph, who served as a one-term governor and senator of Virginia. And while not the original home of the Jeffersonian offspring and grandchildren, the charming inn bears a courtliness that is an easy blend of historic significance, elegance, and intimacy that is both striking and comforting. And interestingly, Clifton sits in stark contrast to what is no doubt the area’s primary attraction—Monticello.

By anyone’s standards, Monticello is an architectural marvel. Inspired primarily by the classical Roman design principles that guided 16th-century great Palladio, Jefferson spent more than 40 years envisioning and completing his home. Monticello, which means “little mountain” in Italian, is Jefferson’s masterpiece, marked not only for its unique relation between house and the surrounding landscape, but also its indelible traces of Jefferson’s intellectual pursuits and interests.

Skylights, open and airy living spaces, and a distinctly masculine sense of space-time continuum pervade Jefferson’s self-described “essay in architecture.” In every room, the architecture is designed with an eye to space, specifically a profitable use of it. Even Jefferson’s own bed is tucked into an alcove to save precious space, and his closets are built into the walls above, requiring a ladder to reach them. This economy of use is typical throughout and is magnified by the late president’s clear fixation with time, and the inherent human tendency to waste it. There is a timepiece in virtually every room of the first floor, including the Great Clock that dominates the eastern interior and exterior entrance of Monticello. Designed by Jefferson and operated by a precise system of pulleys and weights that indicates the day of the week, the Great Clock measures and displays time right down to the second.

And while filled with countless books, and some luxury goods of the day, and Jefferson’s numerous inventions and gadgets, Monticello is a study in fascination, but not necessarily fragile beauty. Clifton, on the other hand, offers the body what Monticello offers the mind—exploration, introspection, and sweet solace—especially at teatime.

Tea in the Afternoon 

Afternoon Tea at Clifton mirrors in every way a stay there. The stamp of luxury is distinct in the trappings, and the service is flawless; but there also exists a low-key gentility that is as cozy as a chenille blanket on a chilly mountain morning.

The inn’s rates include breakfast and afternoon tea, which is served with throw-away elegance on the porch, in the commons areas of the inn, or, upon request, in one’s room or suite. Hot fresh scones, light lemon cream, and preserves arrive with individual pots of tea. Simple savories, such as smoked salmon tea sandwiches, are available upon request, and sweets are seasonal, fresh, and as lovely to look at as they are delicious to eat. While the selections typically include such specialties as strawberry tarts with embellishments of edible gold, Executive Pastry Chef Erin Souder can be called upon (with a kind word and perhaps a small hint of urgency) to fulfill extra-special requests as well.

One especially indulgent sweet perfect for dedicated teaophiles is the classic English offering, Sticky Toffee Pudding. Warm, sweet, and so beautifully presented that one will delay digging in with a spoon just a moment longer to appreciate the artistry of the plating technique, this dessert is perfectly paired with one of the inn’s Mighty Leaf black teas.

Keswick Hall 

For a more formal afternoon tea service while in Charlottesville, a quick drive to Keswick Hall will yield such an experience to perfection. Three teas services are available, starting with the basic Classic Tea featuring scones, tarts, madeleines, tea bread, lemon curd, Devon cream, fresh fruit preserves, and a heavenly selection of teas that range in palate from Vanilla Oolong to Floral Jasmine Green to a Rooibos tisane blended with fragrant tangerine. With the Traditional Afternoon Tea, guests receive the addition of tea sandwiches. At the top of the tier is the Keswick Royal Tea, with a flute of French Champagne, the entirety of the afternoon tea menu, and the simple pleasure of fresh unadorned berries.

Under the keen and exacting eye of Executive Pastry Chef Sam Moffitt, each tea sandwich is carefully (and deliciously) crafted. Always made from seasonal ingredients, the mix is classic British tea fare—curried chicken salad, egg salad, smoked salmon, etc.—while avoiding a run-of-the-mill rating for either taste or style.

Presentation is one of Moffitt’s strong suits—fresh flowers adorn not only the table, but serving trays as well. Each tiny sweet, every tea sandwich, even the tray of curd, preserves, and Devon cream, served in miniature lidded jars and presented on a blossom-strewn ceramic tray, are exquisite. All are served in Keswick’s floral and antique-themed Villa Crawford, which holds a serene sensibility that enriches the tea experience.

Other Attractions 

When taking tea in Charlottesville, don’t forget to leave room for the chocolate, specifically Gearharts chocolate, located in the lively Main Street Market. The tiny confectionary is pure scaled-down elegance and, either by design or happy accident, looks and feels like an exclusive fine jewelry store.

The artisan hand-dipped chocolates are beautifully displayed in silver trays set in glass and wooden cases, and the heady smell of cacao induces the exact same inner thrill of excitement that the sight of a baguette-cut diamond does in a velvet-lined ring box. Tea lovers will purr at the taste of the Earl Grey truffle, but the Maya can’t be overlooked. Spiked with the pungent flavors of orange and cinnamon, the bite-size truffles offers those who indulge an unusual, spicy finish. The culprit? Ancho chile.

Whether it’s the first or the last stop through Main Street Market, don’t let Gearhart’s be the only stop. An innovative clustering of stores and eateries nestled side by side, the Market is designed to emulate the open-air emporiums of Europe and is devoted to the art of food, from any number of options for gourmet ingredients to fresh-picked flowers for sale to savvy kitchen gadgetry.

Just a few blocks away, the historic Downtown Mall is a haven for tourists and locals alike, featuring more than 30 restaurants and locally owned shops, such as Tuel Jewelers. Tuel, a family-owned business open since 1945, is a Downtown Mall fixture where one can discover a one-of-a-kind triple strand of pearls alongside watches, charms, rings, and more.

Affectionately mentioned in the books of author John Grisham, who lives in the area and who can sometimes be spotted in and among the ambling throngs, the Downtown Mall is a people-watcher’s paradise and a wonderful place to spend a morning or an afternoon weaving in and among the crowds.

The perfect predecessor to a leisurely spot of afternoon tea, it is one of many attractions on display and in-hand in lovely Charlottesville, a city infused with tradition and a can’t-miss destination for all who revere not just the indulgence of summer sojourn but a memorable adventure as well.

A Taste of Charlottesville

Fine dining is but one facet of this Virginia city’s mustn’t-miss attractions. And while the options are abundant, consider these stand-outs:


Clifton Inn: From eggs over-easy with fresh Virginia ham to butter-drenched gingerbread pancakes, Clifton has options to suit every palate. Served on the inn’s sun-filled patio or in your room, breakfast begins with tea or coffee and a signature basket of breads, a cheesy flaky bun with a spicy kick, plus a just-sweet-enough cinnamon-laced muffin. Located at 1296 Clifton Inn Drive, Charlottesville, VA 22911; 434-971-1800.

Albemarle Baking Company: Greet the day with a choice of fresh-baked stuffed or plain croissants, a wonderful selection of scones, fruit foccaccia, coffee cake, morning buns and much more. Located at 418 W. Main Street, Charlottesville, VA, 22903; 434-293-6456. Hours are 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday.


Feast!: A combination fresh-foods market and deli, the menu at Feast! is made fresh daily with local, seasonal ingredients and understated flair. Options include such offerings as a turkey and Brie sandwich with cranberry walnut relish plus soups and salads. Located at 416 W. Main Street, Charlottesville, VA 22903; 434-244-7800. Café hours are 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday through Saturday.

Hamiltons’ At First and Main: At this cheerful and cozy restaurant, lunch options range from a vegetarian blue plate special to smoked pork tenderloin over Maytag blue cheese grits with sautéed green beans and sour cherry port sauce. Located at 101 W. Main Street, Charlottesville, VA 22902; 434-295-6649. Outdoor dining is available in seasonal weather.


Fossett’s – Every table enjoys a stunning view of the grounds at Keswick Hall, and the service is as impeccable as it is friendly. Dinner fare includes a bit of every good thing—chilled lobster salad with pear vinaigrette, black truffle risotto, Sonoma lamb, pheasant breasts, and more. Located at 701 Club Drive, Keswick VA 22947; 434-979-3440. Reservations can be made online at www.keswick.com.

C&O – A cornerstone of fine dining for decades in Charlottesville, C&O is the darling of critics, out-of-towners, and local folk. The menu includes such innovations as spicy parsnip soup with cilantro crème fraîche, curried root vegetable dumplings, and beef tenderloin potpie. Located at 515 E. Water Street, Charlottesville, VA 22902; 434-971-7044. Reservations are a must and can be made by phone only.


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