France has moved a little closer since Eurostar’s move from Waterloo to St Pancras International in November.
Along with the switch to the shiny new terminal, Eurostar trains started operating on High Speed 1, the new fast track connecting St Pancras to the Channel Tunnel.
It has cut the journey time from London to the centre of Paris by 20 minutes to two hours, 15 minutes, giving Brits an even better reason to have a few days in the French capital or one of Eurostar’s five other destinations: Lille, Avignon, Bourg St Maurice, Disneyland Resort Paris and Brussels.
Six years and £800 million was spent restoring St Pancras to its former glory. The result is an impressive new station for the 21st century, still with its huge span ceiling, but also wi-fi Internet access, boutique shopping, cafes, restaurants and bars, and the longest champagne bar in Europe.
A daily farmers’ market is expected to open in February 2008 and the site of the Midland Grand Hotel, which later became railway offices, is being redeveloped by Marriott as a six-star 244-room Renaissance property with 67 loft apartments, opening in 2010.
A few Eurostar trains will continue to stop at Ashford International, but mostly they will call at the new station at Ebbsfleet in Kent, near the Bluewater shopping centre.
All in all, now is the perfect time to rediscover Eurostar’s French destinations. Here’s the lowdown.
Journey time from London: two hours, 15 minutes.
Best time to visit: Spring, but August can be quieter as the locals leave for the summer.
What’s new: Enjoy Paris like a Parisian with the new Paris Greeter service, run by locals who love their city and will show tourists around. The service is free, but bookings must be made at least seven days in advance.
Must do: Set aside a day for the Louvre, and everyone has to go up the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe for a view down the Champs-Elysées. Notre-Dame is a must, and while in the area cross to the Left Bank and stroll around the Latin Quarter.
Montmartre, with its stunning white-stone Sacré-Coeur church, is packed with tourists and portrait painters.
Onward connections: Take a 35-minute train ride to Disneyland Resort Paris for a day in the land where dreams come true.
Where to stay: There are hundreds of hotels in Paris, from small budget rooms to the legendary George V. Thomson has accommodation at the Franklin D Roosevelt, just off the Champs-Elysées, from £76 per night.
Eurostar fare: From £59 per person return.
Disneyland Resort Paris
Journey time from London: two hours, 40 minutes.
Best time to visit: Out of school holidays. Eurostar trains operate daily to the resort.
What’s new: The Tower of Terror comes to Walt Disney Studios Park in early 2008. Think tall building and broken lift and you’ll get the idea.
Must do: The Peter Pan ride through Neverland, It’s a Small World and Pirates of the Caribbean. For a bit more excitement try Catastrophe Canyon in Walt Disney Studios Park, the runaway train around Big Thunder Mountain or Space Mountain: Mission 2. There are also shows and parades through the day.
Onward connections: Add a day or two in Paris, 35 minutes away by train.
Where to stay: There are six themed Disney hotels, plus the Davy Crockett Ranch, and another seven properties a short shuttle bus ride away. Leger Holidays has three nights’ bed and breakfast at Disney’s Hotel Santa Fe from £389 per person (kids stay free) in February 2008 with return travel on Eurostar.
Eurostar fare: From £59 per person return.
Journey time from London: one hour, 20 minutes.
Best time to visit: Early September, for the Grand Braderie, when the citizens of Lille set up shop on the pavements and flog off their unwanted possessions.
What’s new:Galeries Lafayette has opened a glamorous new fashion store in the heart of Lille’s shopping district, close to the Grand Place.
Must do: Head for the Old City to see 17th century Lille. For culture and history, there’s the Palais des Beaux Arts museum, said to be second only to the Louvre in Paris; La Piscine at Roubaix, housed in a former art deco public baths; and the Charles de Gaulle Museum, in honour of the city’s famous son.
Wazammes Market, one of the biggest in France, runs from 7am to 2pm on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays.
Onward connections: Hop back on Eurostar and have a day in Brussels.
Where to stay: Lille has hotels ranging from two to four-star and the top-rated L’Hermitage Gantois. Thomas Cook has two nights’ bed and breakfast at the Crowne Plaza Lille from £176 per person in January including return travel by Eurostar.
Eurostar fare: From £55 return.
Journey time from London: average of six hours.
Best time to visit: Eurostar operates from London from July 12 to September 13 next year
What’s new: Three rooms have opened at the Musée Calvet in December showing paintings and works of art by painters in Avignon from the Renaissance to the Revolution.
Must do: Take a boat trip to see Pont St-Bénezet, the bridge immortalised in the song ‘Sur le Pont d’Avignon’. Built in 1185, only four of its 22 original arches remain – the others were washed away in floods in 1668. Join the locals in the hill-top gardens of Rocher des Doms and spend a few euros in the markets.
Onward connections: Nîmes, an important city in the Roman Empire, is 25 miles to the west and home to the best-preserved Roman amphitheatre in France. Chateauneuf-du-Pape, famous for its wine estates, is 12 miles north.
Where to stay: The city has small properties ranging from two to four-star. Kirker Holidays has three nights’ bed and breakfast at the De L’Horloge in the heart of the city from £598 per person including return first-class travel by Eurostar and private transfers.
Eurostar fare: From £99 per person return.
Bourg St Maurice
Journey time from London: around nine hours.
Best time to visit: Eurostar’s ski train from London operates this winter from December 22 to April 13.
What’s new: The spirit of Lapland comes to Arc 1950 for the Far North Adventure from January 21-24, with sled dog activities, ski-joring (being towed on skis by a horse), igloos, and ice and snow sculptures.
Must do: From Bourg St Maurice, you can be in Les Arcs, Sainte Foy, Val d’Isère and Tignes in 15-25 minutes. A funicular goes to Arc 1600, in the heart of the Paradiski area, in seven minutes.
Onward connections: The train stops at Moutiers and Aime la Plagne before arriving in Bourg St Maurice, giving easy access to 10 top ski resorts. From Moutiers, Meribel, La Tania, Courcheval, Val Thorens and Les Menuires are a 15-35 minute transfer. La Plagne is 30 minutes from Aime la Plagne.
Where to stay: There are hotels and chalets in all the resorts. Crystal has seven nights’ half-board at the three-star La Cachette in Arc 1600 from £689 per person in April 2008 including overnight return travel on Eurostar.
Eurostar fare: £179 per person return.