We went to visit our friends in Brussels for a long weekend. We decided to use this as an opportunity to try out the Eurostar for the first time - we've wanted to do this for years, but its recent relocation to St. Pancras made it especially attractive.
The main positive point is the convenience. We took the fast train from Cambridge and arrived in Kings Cross only 30mins before departure. It's a few minutes walk to the International Station. Check-in takes 10secs and the X-ray checks are very fast. Anyone who flies regularly will be amazed at how quick this can be. [We had the hassle that our 2 year old set off the alarm, and they were very rude about checking her. But I'm guessing we were just unlucky with the particular security person.]
The external area of St Pancras International is indeed very impressive. There has been a lot of positive press and I think it's deserved. I was somewhat surprised to find the rather sordid departures lounge past passport control (where you sit waiting to gain access to the platform). As far as I could see there was one cafe with a hundred people queuing for a coffee, one newsagent with thirty people queuing to buy coke because they didn't want to queue for a coffee, and a bar with ten people queuing to buy beer because they don't like coke (it was 07:45 after all). I was expecting more facilities. It does seem that they don't want you to turn up early.
The real disappointment was the train. Eurostar has been going for a while and the train was essentially original, i.e. it looked very dated, the carriage design is not great (no feeling of space), the chairs look quite shabby, etc. Indeed, as Mateja pointed out, the train from Cambridge was ten times better! The disappointment was compounded by the fact that even though I requested the seats to be together, they weren't. As our 2 year old doesn't get a seat, it was very cramped.
The convenience factor came to our rescue (a bit): it takes under two hours from London to Brussels. This is simply incredible. Given the lack of check-in time, and the fact that you arrive in the centre of town, Eurostar has an amazing advantage over the airlines. I'm not surprised that they've just turned in a profit for the first time!
Brussels is a slightly odd city, but rather than dwell on that, I'll just note that we went to two museums: (1) The Natural Science Museum. This has the biggest gallery of dinosaurs in Europe. We were a party with 6 children, and they loved it. Highly recommended. (2) The Royal Museum for Central Africa. A consequence of their colonial days, this was an interesting trip. They have deliberately kept the museum as it used to be, so it's not very whizzy, there's very little in English (only French and Flemish) and you can end up having some interesting conversations with a 5 year old about the evils of colonialism :-) Our kids liked it as we went to a safari park not so long ago, so they were keen to spot animals they had seen before. Particularly recommended is the cafe, which serves African food. We had an excellent Madagascan Chicken. Also impressive is the actual building it is housed in.
I have to confess to drinking a lot of Belgian beer over the four days. I really do like wheat beer - so I had a great time!
Now back to work onThe Big Secret Project...