At 6.12pm on November 13, last year, the Eurostar pulled out of London's Waterloo station for the final time. The train had been based there for 13 years but its English terminus is now the freshly glamorous St Pancras station, next door to King's Cross. Trains now leave from a magnificent neo-Gothic jumping-off point refurbished at a cost of GBP800 million (HK$12.3 billion). Better still, the relocation has cut 20 minutes from the London-to-Lille journey, making the northern French city only 80 minutes away from the British capital. Some commentators have suggested this high-speed link is the beginning of a revival in stylish rail travel. And, with serpentine queues at airport security desks and budget airlines abandoning passengers nowhere near popular cities, it's an appealing thought. But can a faster train make trekking from one international destination to another a pleasure instead of a chore? Arriving at St Pancras, epitome of Victoriana, with seconds to spare, I rush to the check-in desk to collect my ticket - from a man who warns me I might not make it. You are supposed to check in at least 30 minutes before departure but, at the customs desk, the officers laugh, assuring me everything will be OK as they squirrel me through security. Formalities complete, I relax on a sofa - how strange to begin a journey without feeling as if I'm being herded onto a cattle truck. The train is even more comfortable: the seats are huge, with enough space to do most of the things that make travel enjoyable. Eating a flaky croissant and drinking a coffee while reading a newspaper present no problems. There is no need to cross your fingers and hope the adjacent seat will not be claimed by one of Europe's larger citizens - Eurostar pews are roomy enough to accommodate those who struggle to see their toes. The train blasts across London and the Kent countryside before hurtling through the Channel Tunnel (Le Tunnel sous la Manche, in French) at 300km/h; all too soon we are at our destination. From the rail terminus it's a 10-minute walk to the town centre. At first glance, Lille is nothing special - a few shopping centres and some bland housing - but then you reach the Place du General de Gaulle. For a French city, there is a distinctly Dutch feeling to Lille's central district, one augmented by gingerbread-style buildings in mustard yellow and burned pink. Look up for the orange-red slanted roof of the former stock exchange - the Vielle Bourse - comprising 24 former trading houses. Wander through a gateway that bears the Lion of Flanders crest into a courtyard hosting a covered book market. Head to the north of the city and especially rues Basse and de la Monnaie for the kind of bewitching boutiques and gourmet restaurants you would expect to find in Paris. And while you're seeing the sights, grab a warm waffle with Chantilly cream from a street stall. Although Lille, with its blend of Flemish architecture and Gallic insouciance, is good for a mooch around, I'm here to see the treasures on display in the city's Palais des Beaux Arts. The curves and spikes of this striking gallery are a stroll from the town centre. Built in the swirling belle epoque style, it is one of France's oldest museums and holds the second-largest collection of artwork in the country, after that of the Louvre. There are few museums in the world where you can gape at work by luminaries such as Monet and Toulouse-Lautrec in empty rooms. Some startling contemporary video installations accompany more traditional fare. Exhibitions planned for this year include a retrospective of Goya's work, which begins in April. Alongside the Palais des Beaux Arts building are other art nouveau gems, some housing branches of popular patisserie Paul. Those on the Rue des Sarrazins and in the Place de Strasbourg glitter with spiral chandeliers and golden lamps in cosy corners. More extraordinary architectural examples can be found 15 minutes away by Metro, in the suburb of Roubaix, especially at the Museum of Art and Industry. The museum occupies an art deco treasure that once housed the municipal swimming pool. The remodelled pool is the centrepiece of this top-ranking museum. A collection of work by Marc Chagall will be the star attraction until the end of this month. Visitors shouldn't miss the glassy blue mosaic of crustaceans at L'Huitriere, Lille's finest restaurant. If your budget doesn't stretch to a meal here, at least spare a moment to look inside the restaurant shop, which is filled with delicatessen-style goodies. With a bag stuffed full of olive oil and rhubarb pate, I return to the city, browsing the designer shops along the cobbled side streets and marvelling at the hotchpotch of influences that is Lille. I vow never to return to crowded airports and overstuffed economy class. Getting there: Virgin Atlantic ( www.virginatlantic.com.hk ) flies from Hong Kong to London. Eurostar operates several daily services to Lille and Paris from St Pancras, with return fares from GBP59 (HK$900). Tickets are available at www.eurostar.com ; tel: 44 8705 186 186. L'Hermitage Gantois (224 Rue de Paris, tel: 331 3 20 85 30 30; email@example.com ) is Lille's most attractive hotel and is based in a renovated 15th-century hospital 10 minutes from the city. Rates for one night in a double room start at Euro198 (HK$2,285).