The Channel Tunnel has suffered a fair amount of bad luck, ranging from a serious fire in 1996 causing months of disruption to a Shuttle breakdown at the start of the Easter rush this month that wrecked the travel plans of thousands of passengers.
Most of the time, though, the 50km tunnel between Folkestone and Calais delivers a fast, reliable connection for both passengers on Eurostar trains (08432 186 186; eurostar.com) and vehicle drivers using the 35-minute Eurotunnel shuttles (08443 35 35 35; eurotunnel.com). As summer approaches, the prospect of a smooth start to a Continental adventure is especially appealing.
Day of indulgence
Arrive at Paris Gare du Nord shortly before noon on Eurostar. Enjoy an indulgent lunch – perhaps at the dazzling art deco La Coupole brasserie (102 Boulevard du Montparnasse; 00 33 1 43 20 14 20; lacoupole-paris.com) or maybe with a picnic in the Place des Vosges. Return on a train just after 5pm. The “booking horizon” for Eurostar stretches right through to October, which means you can easily find the cheapest day-trip tickets, £69 return, for the 8.31am outbound train from London St Pancras and the 5.13pm home. Both departures are non-stop, covering the distance between the two capitals in 136 minutes.
The northernmost part of France is full of interest, from the historic towns of French Flanders to the beaches of Wissant and Wimereux. Thanks to Eurotunnel’s Overnight fare – starting at £46 return – you can enjoy two long days in the region so long as you return by midnight on day two. The price is per car, not per person, so for four in a vehicle you pay only £11.50 a head. The same fare applies for a day-trip.
Brussels and beyond
Brussels and beyond
The “Any Belgian Station” ticket from Eurostar costs just £10 more than a trip to Brussels and back, ie starting at £79 return. It allows you to spend up to 24 hours in the Belgian capital before travelling, without further formality, anywhere else in the country – perhaps to Antwerp or Bruges in Flanders, or into the deep French-speaking part of the country: to the handsome city of Liège, or south into the pretty Ardennes. No need to reserve: just catch an ordinary SNCB train (not ICE or Thalys) from Brussels Midi and show the conductor your Eurostar ticket.
Pedal to France
A little-known option with Eurotunnel allows you to take your bike on a special vehicle service, which you must book at least 24 hours in advance on 01303 282201. The one-way fare is £16, which also covers a day-trip. You just show up at the Folkestone Holiday Inn Express and barely an hour later you can be cycling through northern France, perhaps along the coast to Cap Gris Nez or inland to St-Omer. For more details see bit.ly/EuroBike.
South in style
Eurostar’s summer Saturdays-only link from London St Pancras and Ashford to Avignon runs from 28 June to 6 September this year. The journey from London to the Provençal city takes around six hours. Standard-class fares starting at £109 are promised, but rare. Test bookings suggest the £200 mark is more common. So a better policy could be to pay a modest premium for Standard Premier, offering more space with complimentary meals and drinks as you speed south.