Just nipping to the shops ... for a few days

Canada's West Edmonton Mall is the biggest in the world.

The best thing is for us to get the facts out of the way early on because they demand your awe. The West Edmonton Mall in Alberta, Canada, is the biggest shopping mall in the universe.

It covers 5.2 million square ft, employs 20,000 people, has 800 shops, 19 cinemas, 110 restaurants, encompasses five postal codes, one police station, one chapel and its own 354 room hotel - the Fantasyland. It cost Cn$1.1bn (half-a-billion pounds) to build over four years (1981-1985), attracts 20 million visitors annually and boasts 11 entries in the Guinness Book of Records for, among other attractions, the world's largest indoor wave pool and car park (outdoor). It has three mascots - Sharkey, Cosmo and Marvy.

Something this big doesn't fit in the centre of a city so the West Edmonton Mall is a good half-hour's drive from downtown Edmonton, where I am staying. I arrived late at night and pledged to wake early the next morning, which I did in a state of genuine, liberated excitement. There is none of the High Street snob's social tyranny in Canada because malls are a way of life there; when the temperature drops to minus 40C even the most hardened promenaders run for cover.

I enter the West Edmonton Mall through door 40 (there are 58 more) and emerge into a glass-ceilinged hall roughly the size of Earls Court. It has two storeys and is ringed by retail premises of every description, from the American Cigar Company to Kids Are Worth It. "Give the Gift of Golf" beseeches a sign outside a sports shop; on my left is a dentists' and ahead a law practice. Two dwarves are raffling a 1965 Ford Mustang down one avenue. A dozen or so under- fives snake past me as they all hold on to a long piece of yellow rope led by a chaperone. At the centre of this part of the mall is a full-size, professional ice hockey rink, second home to the Edmonton Oilers.

This cavernous, echoey hangar is merely one of three parts, or "phases", of the mall whose floor plan is roughly the shape of a classical cathedral. The rink is where you might receive communion. At its altar is The Bay, one of six major department stores; Sears and Eaton's, two more, are the side chapels, while, fittingly, the baptismal font is World Waterpark, a huge swimming pool with a wave machine and over a dozen tortuous slides.

If you have ever been to an Arndale centre, Lakeland or any other mall in the world, WEM's brass and glass fittings are a familiar sight. Unlike a British mall, though, there are no boarded-up shops, nor any roaming gangs of malevolent teenagers and very few charity shops. Instead, there are familiar names such as Gap, HMV, Hallmark and Locker Room, as well as countless of those Twilight Zone-type stores that are only found in malls, called things like Reflections, Editions or Paradox, which flaunt framed prints of whales and Franklyn Mint "collectables".

Clothes shops dominate the marble landscape, row upon row of them catering for men, women, children and cowboys and every sartorial fetish save rubber (this is a family mall). Pantorama sells nothing but trousers and "Randy River's" clothes inspired scant randyness in me, but if you like overpriced Man at C&A gear, you can buy the full range of Tommy Hilfiger clothing in several stores.

For tourists, such bargains are plentiful. Clothes and shoes are exceptionally cheap; you can buy decent leather women's shoes for pounds 15, Levi 501s are pounds 22, electrical goods are keenly priced (respectable VCRs from pounds 200, camcorders from pounds 385; one shop even sells 220-volt products for the UK); and Nike Michael Jordans, the sort of trainers that get you mugged where I live, are 20 per cent cheaper in WEM.

Food is practically free too... just don't expect Nico Ladenis to be grilling your pancakes. The mall has 110 "Eating Establishments" selling what can best be described as purposeful food, wondrous ice-cream and drinks vendors at every turn, and two large food courts, or "Gourmet Worlds", which purport to offer cuisine from around the globe but in fact this means Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonald's and Americanised Chinese dishes.

A short walk away is Bourbon St, an imitation New Orleans avenue (minus the crack dealers) with bars and restaurants, and one almost authentic pub, the Elephant & Castle (being asked by a friendly and polite waitress if I was "enjoying my beverage" shattered the illusion). My favourite Bourbon St bar is Hooters, the only one of the American chain of sports bars in Canada, Hooters is American slang for bosoms, and the waitresses have them.

I didn't find out what the founding father of WEM, Jacob Ghermezian, thinks of Hooters. Jacob is a 94-year-old Persian Jew who emigrated to Canada in the 1950s and worked initially as a rug salesman; he subsequently built up a property empire that included a few acres of farmland outside a particularly unappealing mining settlement called Edmonton. This was (and still is) the most northerly city in North America, three-and-a-half hours' drive from the Rocky Mountains, but people didn't go there unless they had to. Jacob has changed all that.

This outsider, almost as old as the century itself, has created, whether he knows it or not (and I suspect he is too busy counting his money to care), a fine and fitting monument to the millennium.

More than any giant Ferris wheel, statue or bridge, this glorious, gruesome palace of commerce and leisure will tell future archaeologists all they need to know about life at the end of the 20th century (though the replica of Columbus's Santa Maria might furrow some scholarly brows). For this mall makes clear who we were; what we wore, the food we ate; the games we played, the homes we built, the money we spent, how, where, when and why we lived... because we lived to shop.

Today, Jacob stoops and shuffles, stands at less than five ft and wears a dark suit and Russian fur hat even indoors. His eyes sparkle. He still turns up at the office most mornings to oversee the running of his empire by his four sons, Eskandar (the eldest, and now president of the company), Bahman, Nadar and Raphael, and he can often be seen touring the mall in one of the electric cars, which you can rent for $5.50 an hour.

Gary Hanson, the mall's general manager, recalled the glittering night when Phase Three opened. Phase Three is the largest area of the mall, and includes the waterpark, a miniature golf course and the Deep Sea Adventure lake which you can tour in one of four submarines (more than are owned by the Canadian navy). "It was in the Fall of '85," says Hanson, "a huge party that cost us a million dollars with over 120,000 guests, we took over the whole mall." They ate a ton of Alaskan king crab and 609lbs of caviar.

But did I actually buy anything in this capitalist acropolis? Well, one thing, but it wasn't easy. At the end of my second day in the mall, after much procrastination, I finally plumped for a hat - a grey, oversized skull cap with ear flaps. I had been looking for one ever since I felt the searing, icy blast of the real "outside" world. It had taken all day to find one - not through lack of choice, but because I had simply too much choice. And this, my aching feet told me, is the Sisyphean curse of the West Edmonton Mall.

By some freakish coincidence the book that I borrowed at random from a friend's shelf just as I left to catch the plane to Canada (Keep The Change by Thomas McGuane) has the following passage, describing The Curse perfectly. I came to it half-way through the flight home: "A man was describing his visit to the great mall of Edmonton, Alberta ... He had picked out a shirt he liked in a men's store in the mall. He went out to be sure that there wasn't another shirt in another store, in another part of the mall, he might prefer.

"He concluded that it was the original shirt that he wanted more than the other shirts he had seen. But the great mall of Edmonton, Alberta, was so vast, so labyrinthine, that he could never find the store again...

"Can a mall be, somehow, too wonderful, too big? Specifically, does the great mall of Edmonton, Alberta, so surpass of our hopes that we are no longer satisfied by it?"

A good question.

INFORMATION

Edmonton Tourism - 104, 9797 Jasper Avenue NW, Edmonton, Alberta T5J IN9. Tel: 001 403 496 8400. The mall is open all year, 24 hours a day. Shop opening hours vary. Entrance free. Entrance to World Waterpark $29.95 (pounds 13.60); three hours prior to closing $18.95 (pounds 8.57); 3-10 years $21.95 (pounds 9.97); 55+ $11.25 (pounds 5.09). Galaxyland Amusement Park: day pass $29.95 (under 4ft tall, $21.95; 55+ $11.25; last three hours $18.95).

Getting there

Air Canada flights to Edmonton, via Calgary, from Heathrow, Manchester and Glasgow from pounds 489 plus pounds 24 tax and weekend supplement of pounds 18 (Based on flight departures in May and June).

Accommodation

The author stayed at the Chateau Lacombe Hotel in downtown Edmonton. Standard room pounds 29 per person per night. Executive room pounds 36 (May/June prices). Full details may be found in Thomas Cook's Canada for the Independent Traveller brochure.

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