It ain't got what we got ... but the windy city is mighty pretty and this is as good a reason as any for Simon Calder to do his Christmas shopping there

The problem, you need not be reminded, is that Christmas Day is three weeks away today. The solution, with Sterling at its strongest for four years and fares to the US at absurdly low levels, lies across the Atlantic. My need to find inexpensive-but-interesting gifts is exacerbated by the fact that the Calder clan is both extravagantly extended, and that a large proportion of the family has a birthday in December. So heading west was the answer.

New York is the most popular destination for transatlantic shoppers, but the peculiar retail geography of Manhattan does not lend itself to a lightning shopping strike. So I chose Chicago, labelled the "city of big shoulders" by the poet Carl Sandburg. While battling from one store to the next, you brush past some of the finest architecture on the planet.

This is how it worked. All prices are inclusive of 8.75 per cent sales tax. One more thing: members of the Calder family must stop reading now, and wait for Christmas to discover what awaits them.

12.30pm: O'Hare Field - its modest name conceals the fact that it is the world's busiest airport. Spending begins in a modest way, with a $1.50 (85 pence) token for the "El", the fast train to the city centre.

1pm: Downtown Chicago is a concise and manageable entity, with most of its interest concentrated within the Loop: an oval of elevated train tracks about a mile square. Inside the Loop, you find the world's first skyscraper (the Manhattan Building on South Dearborn, which began reaching for the stars in 1890) and more shoppers than you can shake a credit card at.

1.15pm: You see the Marshall Field department store several blocks before you reach it. A dozen floors of marble, brass and glass are wrapped up in a festoon of decorations. Just inside the door, I met Marilyn Monroe - or at least a lookalike, pushing perfume. She was an "associate", not an employee. Like the John Lewis Partnership, Marshall Field has co-operative tendencies. And like John Lewis, you need to know where you're going.

A friend who has elevated shopping to high art recommended the gastronomy department on the fifth floor. In return, she will get a bottle of Chateau St Nicolas. This Californian white Zinfandel is done up like a Christmas tree, and labelled with a picture of the patron - a jolly, white-bearded and red-hatted fellow. The edge is taken off the Christmas cheer by a government health warning on the back, cautioning that alcoholic beverages may cause health problems. Official disapproval of wine was shown further at the till, when a price of just under pounds 5 was amplified by six cents liquor tax levied by both the county and the city.

Food seemed a safer bet. A festive-looking tin of Marshall Field biscuits was eliminated when the contents turned out to be made in England. Instead, a pound of Holiday Blend whole bean coffee (pounds 6) promises to be "Reminiscent of freshly baked gingerbread ... flavored with holiday spices." Jo will have to see if this is true on Christmas Day.

Parents are a problem, especially if they insist upon being born in December. The Christmas component was solved by an elegantly unmatching pair of voluminous soup mugs, filled to bursting with lentil soup ("Just Add Water And Tomatoes") and Deli Crackers, pounds 10 each. Four presents, and it's only lunchtime.

2pm: Chicago is the home of the deep-dish pizza, and Pizzeria Uno is the place that claims to have invented it in 1953. Some of those shivering outside seem to have been there ever since. The queue at the sister restaurant, Pizzeria Due, was a more modest 30 minutes. A "medium" Quattro Formaggi was so large that it nearly had to be brought in by truck. The two-thirds that I couldn't eat is presently sustaining me through the week.

3pm: America has never had retail price maintenance on books, so bookshops are more adapted than those in Britain to the idea of discounts. This Christmas they are staging a massive price war. John Le Carre is in the best-sellers list with The Tailor of Panama, which means his latest thriller is on sale at Crown Books at 40 per cent off. Hence this present for one twin sister, Sarah, cost a modest pounds 9. The other twin, Penny, gets Sue Grafton's chunky hardback, M is for Malice. The Third Twin is no relation, but the title of Ken Follett's latest, and a suitable paternal present for a fellow Labour Party supporter.

4pm: The map calls it North Michigan Avenue. The locals call it Boul' Mich. The road signs allege it to be the Magnificent Mile. Eat your heart out, Fifth Avenue - this is where the retail core of America resides. From the Gothic tower housing the Chicago Tribune to the John Hancock Center, a monolith rising a quarter-mile into the winter gloom, every store is eagerly soaking up disposable income.

If you treated the exercise simply as a touristic outing, you would be richly rewarded. Nike Town is a superb attraction even for the sedentary, with an aquarium the soothing backdrop to the stripiest range of sports clothing you have ever seen. A few doors along, Hammacher Schlemmer claims to have been "Offering the Best, the Only and the Unexpected since 1848". I took the weight off my feet and soothed the shopping stress with a few minutes on the Massage Chair - worth every cent of the $2,199 price tag, I am sure, but hardly cabin baggage.

4.30pm: When you buy a Brooks Brothers silk tie for pounds 15, you get more than a strip of cloth. As Nick will discover on Christmas morning, the garment is swaddled in tissue and then placed in a midnight-blue box about the size of a small manger.

By now, the plane taking me home had already departed from San Francisco en route to Chicago and thence London. The pressure was on to find the mother of all birthday presents and a gift for sister Kate.

Rand McNally makes most of the road maps that America uses to navigate by. It also runs a retail shop on Michigan Avenue. This is "no Maps R Us" exclusively cartographical cavern: pounds 10 bought Kate a BackPockets car organiser, a kind of rucksack arrangement that hooks on to the back of the driver's seat and holds anything from an umbrella to the latest Oasis cassette.

Lizzie is both the name of my mother and a town in North Carolina. The latter piece of information is included in an atlas called All Over the Map, containing 33 wonderful maps of the United States, from Radiant in Virginia to Why Not, Mississippi. The Christmas map on page 93 matched my mood: Joy, What Cheer and Goodwill, dotted across the Midwest

Chicago city essentials

Getting there: Simon Calder paid pounds 354 including tax for an extensive itinerary to and through the USA, routed Gatwick-Dallas-San Antonio and San Diego-Chicago-Heathrow, travelling on American Airlines and booked through Quest Worldwide (0181-547 3322).

Duty free: In addition to the usual one litre of spirits and 200 cigarettes allowances, Customs & Excise permits other goods to the value of pounds 145 to be imported duty-free. Beyond this you pay VAT of 17.5 per cent on all purchases, plus a variable percentage of duty that depends on the particular item. Electronics, for example, are levied at 3.5 per cent while clothing is charged 13.7 per cent. Call the Customs Advice Centre (0171-202 4227) for more information.

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