L'ETOILE OR BUST

By bicycle, catamaran and jumbo jet they came, by Eurostar train and by Fokker. Lured by the charms of Paris in spring, our testers set out to find the fastest and least stressful route across the Channel
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The Independent Culture
WITH its stunning architecture, great art, exquisite cooking and indefinable air of romance, Paris remains one of the most popular springtime destinations for British travellers. Yet it has its drawbacks. The exchange rate (at seven francs to the pound) is punitive, and the journey isn't quite the "beam-me-up-Scottie" experience that fans of Eurostar would have us believe. Paris may be just three hours away (40 minutes if you're travelling by air) but transit times at both ends of the journey can make the cross-Channel trip more long-haul than you'd expect.

THE TEST

Given the fierce competition between modes of transport across the Channel, we set out to test four different routes from London to Paris, awarding points for convenience, speed, comfort, service and the quality of the experience.

THE PANEL

Martin Wright, journalist; Andrew Purvis, Independent on Sunday travel editor; Philippa Yeoman; and myself. Our initial priorities ranged from duty-free shopping (the ferry route) to seeing the countryside (the train route), but in the end we agreed that there were three main criteria for the perfect trip - not being kept waiting, good food and a relaxed atmosphere.

****EUROSTAR

London Waterloo to Paris Gare du Nord; fare pounds 187.50 (outward standard, return 1st-class); journey time door to door (Finsbury Park-central Paris) 5hr 40min each way, train journey 4hr

The sub-Channel route turned out to be, as they say, a game of two halves. I met my two companions 20 minutes before departure, at Waterloo's international terminal - as ritzy as any airport shopping mall. The smartly uniformed staff and gleaming train made us feel this was an adventure to be savoured; it was just too bad that so many other people seemed to think so too. The 10.23 on a Friday morning was completely full; so when we found that, due to some administrative error, we had been booked into a smoking carriage, there was no chance of moving.

Other disappointments related to the leg room, the meagre buffet facilities and several halts this side of the Channel with explanations straight out of an Ealing comedy. To be fair, we made up most of the time on the French side of the tunnel, when Eurostar finally got into its stride at an impressive 300km per hour, and arrived at the Gare du Nord only 15 minutes late. We were able to walk to our hotel.

The return journey in first-class was a triumph of elitism. From a waiting area at Gare du Nord (which isn't a patch on Waterloo; one shop, one bar), we alighted into a plush carriage with proper tables, acres of leg room, peace and fresh air. Cabin attendants scurried back and forth with free champagne, drinks, a delicious four-course meal, chocolates etc, which made our journey pass very agreeably indeed. The taxi queue at Waterloo forced us back into the dreary reality of the Tube, but despite this we all agreed that, with a "Leisure First" ticket at pounds 185 (must include a Saturday-night stay) first class on Eurostar would be the way to go to Paris if comfort is your prime concern.

*****AIR FRANCE

Business Class; from London City Airport; off-peak return pounds 167; journey time door to door (north London-Boulevard Haussman) 3hr 20min each way, flight time around 45min

Barely considered by many travellers, the tiny London City Airport - in Docklands, east of the City - at first struck us as a quixotic departure point, then surprised everybody by being voted the clear winner.

Environment journalist Martin Wright naturally chose to cycle there from his home in Stoke Newington, north London, determined to test the politeness of City Airport staff. They passed with flying colours. He presented his bicycle to left luggage, where the attendant said it would be fine as long as it was checked by security, who "prodded the pedals a few times, had a good laugh, then reassured the left luggage assistant that it had indeed been checked," said Wright.

City Airport itself won points for being small, quiet and full of daylight. "You can have coffee looking out over the Royal Docks. Passengers are allowed to check in just 10 minutes prior to departure, and there are precious few formalities: the lady at the gate looks at your passport and boarding card, then you just stroll across the tarmac to the plane."

All Air France flights from City Airport are business class. There were only eight people on the plane going out, though news of lower fares (previously quoted at pounds 215) could attract more leisure travellers. Wright was served "a really good breakfast" which included salmon bagel. He had only hand luggage, and stepped out of the terminal at Charles de Gaulle straight on to a waiting Air France bus to Etoile. On his return journey he took an RATP bus back to the airport, checking in 20 minutes before take-off as required. Though the flight left 10 minutes late, Wright arrived at City Airport on time - after "a delicious dinner" with champagne. He walked straight through the terminal, put on his cycle clips ("Just think: 15 minutes after the plane hit the tarmac, I was on the road cycling home") and arrived home in record time, beating every other method of travel for speed and style.

**BRITISH AIRWAYS

Club Class; from Heathrow; pounds 344 return; journey time door to door (Canary Wharf-Boulevard Haussman) 4hr 45min each way, flight time around 35min

Even when flying Club Class with "the world's favourite airline", air travel can be a hit-and-miss affair. Andrew Purvis set off from our offices at Canary Wharf, east London, to brave the Piccadilly line and travel the full width of the capital to Heathrow's Terminal 4.

After heartstopping delays (no fault of BA's) resulting in a 1hr 30min odyssey, he checked in 20 minutes before departure - just within the minimum allowed. BA's glossy Club Class brochure states that Club passengers will be whisked through passport control and security using a "Fast Track" facility. Staff at the late check-in desk were helpful, relieving Purvis of his suitcase and speeding it through baggage control - but when he showed his Club boarding card to airport staff, he was told to queue at the security check with everyone else. This took 10 minutes, leaving him just 5 minutes to sprint to the gate and board. After all the rush, the plane took off 25 minutes late - though it caught up and arrived more or less on schedule.

The Club cabin was excellent - "ergonomic seats as wide as sofas, leg room for giants, personal video and TV screen, personal credit-card phone etc" - but who needs all this on a half-hour flight? The choice of plane, one of BA's new Boeing 777 medium-haul jumbos, was "like using a Lamborghini to drop the kids off at school," said our tester. There was scarcely time for an in-flight meal, and it was by far the worst our travel editor had tasted: "Limp ham, rubberised chicken, dry bread, described as an `open sandwich' and, unforgiveably, a warm can of Grolsch." The comedy of errors continued when a video demo of safety procedures had to be aborted and conducted manually when the new technology failed.

Baggage reclaim at Charles de Gaulle airport took 40 minutes and a Roissy bus to the Boulevard Haussman 50 minutes. On the return leg, Purvis flew from Orly - 14 stops on the Metro and a 25-minute transit bus to Orly Sud terminal. "Uneventful," he said, "apart from a suitcase being detonated by the French police in the check-in area, and a one-hour delay in departure time."

At Heathrow, Purvis took advantage of a Hertz chauffeur-driven car to central London - part of BA's Club Executive service, for an additional pounds 39 - but the heavy weekend traffic lengthened the car trip to 1hr 15mins. The tester's verdict? "The plane certainly took the strain, but the rest of the journey was a slow-motion nightmare."

STENA LINE

Lynx catamaran ferry; Dover- Calais; pounds 112 for car plus driver and passenger; journey time door to door (north London-central Paris), 11hr outward, 7hr 30min return; crossing 40min

Stena Line claims to offer "the smoothest ferry since Bryan" on its Stena Lynx catmaran, but this was a journey fraught with disaster. Philippa Yeoman set out from Finsbury Park in north London at 8.30am, but car trouble meant that she and her companion arrived at the ferry late and on foot.

None of this was Stena Line's fault, of course - and the ferry terminal staff were sympathetic. Nevertheless, our testers "got the impression that the service wasn't designed for foot passengers. We had to wait until all the cars were on before we boarded."

During this time they had to suffer loud music on the PA system; they decided to cheer themselves up with a visit to the duty-free shop, but were disappointed to find it "tinier than our local newsagents" and hence lacking many well-known brands. The worst aspect of the crossing for Yeoman (who is "never seasick") was that, despite good weather, she felt the boat "lurching in a peculiar way" and had to make a dash for the (unsignposted) lavatories. Stena Line staff appeared to know little about Calais - crucially, where the railway station was - and train departures do not coincide with ferry arrivals. But our testers did manage to catch an SNCF train to Paris Gare du Nord; from there, their hotel was just a few stops on the Metro. Unsurprisingly, they were "totally exhausted".

The return journey was less eventful - except for confusion at Calais, where a taxi took Yeoman and her friend to the wrong berth, leaving them to be collected by a special Stena Line car minutes before the sailing. "We're currently operating out of a temporary berth at that port," explained a spokesman.

The testers were full of praise for the ferry's on-board cafe, but said in retrospect that it would only be worth taking this route if you were going to Paris for at least a week. If you're aiming to stock up on duty- free goods, then be prepared for a modest selection.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Air France, 0181 742 6600; British Airways, 0345 222 111; Stena Line, 01233 647 047; Eurostar, 0345 881 881.

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