Chicago

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.

Suggested Topics
News
The cartoon produced by Bruce MacKinnon for the Halifax Chronicle-Herald on Thursday, showing the bronze soldiers of the war memorial in Ottawa welcoming Corporal Cirillo into their midst
news
Voices
Funds raised from the sale of poppies help the members of the armed forces with financial difficulties
voicesLindsey German: The best way of protecting soldiers is to stop sending them into disastrous conflicts
Voices
Nigel Farage has backed DJ Mike Read's new Ukip song
voicesNigel Farage: Where is the Left’s outrage over the sexual abuse of girls in the North of England?
Property
One bedroom terraced house for sale, Richmond Avenue, Islington, London N1. On with Winkworths for £275,000.
property
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Life and Style
Text messaging changes as a relationship evolves
life
News
The comedian, 42, made the controversial comment following the athlete’s sentencing to five years for the culpable homicide of Reeva Steenkamp on Tuesday
peopleComedian's quip about Reeva Steenkamp was less than well received at music magazine awards
Sport
Cristiano Ronaldo in action for Real Madrid
football
News
peoplePerformer had recently been diagnosed with prostate cancer
Life and Style
food + drink
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Junior Application Support Engineer (ERP / SSRS)

    £23000 - £30000 per annum + pension, 25days holiday: Ashdown Group: An industr...

    IT Systems Analyst / Application Support Engineer (ERP / SSRS)

    £23000 - £30000 per annum + pension, 25days holiday: Ashdown Group: An industr...

    SCRUM Master

    £30 - 50k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a SCRUM Master to joi...

    Franchise Support Assistant

    £13,520: Recruitment Genius: As this role can be customer facing at times, the...

    Day In a Page

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?