Traveling London to Paris will never be the same. By sea it is an inconvenient eight to nine hour trip: two hours by train from London's Charing Cross Station to Dover; a half-hour bus connection to the Dover port; an hour and a half voyage across the Channel; then four and a half hours by train to Paris Nord Station. Leaving London at 7 a.m. gets one to Paris (including the one hour time difference) at 5 p.m.

London to Paris via the new Channel rail tunnel, however, takes only three hours: leave London at 6:57 a.m. and arrive Paris Nord at 11 a.m. (one hour time difference).

But doesn't one miss the sea voyage, and isn't it claustrophobic and boring going through that long underwater tunnel?

Having tried both alternatives a number of times, I can say such fears are groundless. The sea voyage is not glamorous; an hour and a half ride aboard a huge catamaran with seating reminiscent of a Boeing 747 with a bumpier ride. The only deck space is a small platform at the stern with a view of the wake. As for the tunnel, the time spent actually under the Channel is only about 25 minutes, just slightly longer than some Swiss tunnels, and is over before there is time for claustrophobia.

Besides being much quicker, the train is also more convenient. The old way was an ordeal of lugging baggage and showing tickets and getting resettled after each change, and the French train from Calais to Paris alone took an hour and a half longer than the entire Eurostar ride.

Based on my June London to Paris trip, here is what you may expect if you book first class. I first took the tube to Waterloo Station and ascended to the upper floor, entering the Eurostar area by inserting my pre-purchased ticket in the magnetic gate. Twenty minutes early, I sipped orange juice in the glass-roofed lobby until departure. There was no passport check; no documentation to produce.

After the boarding announcement I rode an escalator up one level and boarded the coach which matched my reservation. Those who have already been aboard a French TGV will feel familiar with the terrain.

Due to the narrower British right-of-way, Eurostar coaches are a bit tighter than TGVs, but seats are comfortable and decor a pleasant mix of muted reds and grays, the whole effect not unlike airline business class. Seats are arranged in facing fours on one side and facing twos on the other, and provided with tables, each with a little lamp, reminiscent of French restaurant cars.

Seated with three Americans bound for Bern to visit friends, we were soon sharing travel tales. A friendly hostess offered us a choice of English or Continental breakfast. Juice, coffee, croissants, pain au chocolat, and hard rolls came right away, quickly followed by an omelet, sausage, bacon and mushrooms, as we tooled through the English countryside at about 80 MPH. The ride was smooth without sideways movement and seemingly effortless.

Soon we were passing through the huge staging area near Dover for cars traversing the tunnel aboard "Le Shuttle" railcars. Eating and chatting away, we hardly noticed the time underwater. Twenty-five minutes later we emerged in Calais and stopped for a brief "safety check."

A nudge of power was evident as we accelerated, and a few minutes later we were updated over the intercom, "the engineer has informed me that Eurostar has reached its maximum speed of 186 miles per hour."

With little sensation of speed other than the flying French countryside, we continued another hour and a half, pulling alongside our platform in Nord Station in Paris at precisely the scheduled time, joining a line of other high-speed trains from other destinations. Again there were no customs formalities.

Since I was booked into Paris Nord Hotel across the street, I was quickly ready for some sight-seeing. This had been an enjoyable though not adventurous trip, getting me where I wanted to be with a minimum of fuss. It's too bad it took all those years and squabbles to get the thing built. BW

Eurostar Ticket Prices

* 14-day round-trip advance purchase, 2nd class, restricted, nonrefundable - $134; one way - $75
* Unrestricted 2nd class one way - $123 ($83 for Eurailpass holders)
* 1st-class with meal - $154 ($118 for Eurailpass holders).
* The least expensive Eurailpass, the three-day France pass, costs $185 1st class, $145 2nd class, or, when two travel together, $150 per person 1st class, $115 per person 2nd class.

Reservations and information: DER Tours 800-782-2424 or Rail Europe 800-438-7245.

July 1995