Talk to a witch, get hitched, stuff a bear

Christmas shopping in the malls of North America will not be bland or dull. And, writes Karen Banyon, it should save you pots of money

WITH HUGE savings to be made on a range of goods it is no wonder that we are heading across the Atlantic in record numbers to do our Christmas shopping. But there is more to shopping in North America than New York. Many cities offer the American consumer dream; from mammoth malls to designer-chic boutiques, transatlantic bargain hunters will not be disappointed.

Minneapolis

Minneapolis is home to America's largest, fully enclosed shopping mall, The Mall of America, which attracts more visitors annually than Disney World, the Grand Canyon and Graceland combined. With over 500 shops even Scrooge would have difficulty keeping his wallet closed. It has everything from large department stores - Sears, Bloomingdale's, Macys and Nordstrom - to more unusual shops like The Basic Brown Bear Factory, where you can create your own stuffed bear. There is even a cart (the Leftorium) that is dedicated to selling left-handed wares, but one of the most amazing shops is the Chapel of Love. Yes, for a fee you can get hitched within the confines of a shopping centre.

If you want to enter into the Christmas spirit take a guided Christmas- lights tour of St Paul, Minneapolis's twin city. The best places to see the lights are Rice Park, Kellogg Park and along the river front between Wabasha and Roberts Streets, and Mears Park in historic Lowertown.

Tips: it is worth taking a trip out to Stillwater. This village has stood still in time. It has several old shops selling antiques, books, clothing and much more.

Savings: when you arrive at the Mall, go to one of the Information Desks and ask for a discount booklet. This gives money off vouchers to several shops.

Getting there: a three-night package with Icelandair Holidays start at pounds 435, including flights, accommodation and taxes. (tel: 0171-388 5599).

Boston

Boston is commonly referred to as America's walking city and designer snobs should stroll straight to Newbury Street, known locally as the Rodeo Drive of Boston. It has many chic designer shops and also some more unusual ones, like a shop which sells only gargoyles (The Gargoyles) and Lulus which sells old hotel and cruise ship memorabilia, including towels from the Titanic.

The nearby Prudential Shopping Mall (easy to find; just look for the Prudential skyscraper) is a typically American mall. It is packed with boutiques and speciality carts. It also has an excellent food court and a Legal Seafood Restaurant which is good for lunch.

For a real flavour of Boston visit Faneuil Hall. This stands on the site where the American Revolution began. Today this "Cradle of Liberty" is Boston's equivalent to London's Covent Garden. There are lots of craft and speciality stalls, boutiques and street entertainers, jugglers, clowns and musicians.

But for serious bargain hunters, Filene's Basement (at Downtown Crossing) is the place to shop as it operates an automatic mark-down on goods. Items are reduced the longer they have been in the store and you could be lucky enough to pay just $1 for designer-label clothing. This is the place where you are guaranteed to find heaps of bargains and although it has a jumble sale atmosphere, this stuff is far from junk.

If you are completely devoted to shopping then you will not mind the hour's drive to Filene's in Hyannis (Cape Cod) where there are some wonderful village-style shops. In Sandwich I found Lavender Moon, an outlet run by two white witches selling some very interesting gifts. It is best to stay overnight in Cape Cod and drive back next day via the Wrentham Mall (off highway 495). This is an outdoor mall packed with around 100 designer shops all offering discounts of between 25 and 65 per cent on everyday prices. It also has a Samsonite Shop where you can buy a large holdall, at a discount price, to transport all your bargains back home.

Tips: bookworms and music lovers should go to Harvard, which is packed with book shops and record stores. Boston also has an FAO Schwartz with an excellent selection of children's toys.

Savings: the advantage of shopping in Boston is that there is no tax on clothing and shoes, unless you buy a single item that costs more than $175.

Getting there: Virgin Holidays offers three-night packages staying at either the Boston Park Plaza for pounds 409 per person or the Back Bay Hilton for pounds 469 per person. Both hotels are well situated for shopping. Overnight stays at the Daniel Webster Inn, Cape Cod, cost pounds 24 per person per night. (pounds 48 per room for two people sharing). For bookings call Virgin Holidays: (tel: 01293 617181).

Toronto

Toronto has earned its title, Hollywood North, from the number of films shot in the city over the last decade. It is also the cleanest city I have ever visited and has some fantastic shopping bargains. Eaton Centre, a mall, has over 350 stores and restaurants on five levels. Each level has shops catering for different price brackets: level one is food, record stores and inexpensive fashion shops, level two is medium priced, and level three reaches designer heights with a pocket-pinching range of exclusive boutiques and shops.

Here you will find many big names such as Benetton, Esprit, Gap and Banana Republic. There are also several good jewellery shops, most selling 14- carat gold or above. Another good spot for jewellery is opposite Eaton Centre at the Jewellery Exchange (295 Yonge Street). It has 60, independent, quality jewellers and the prices are two-thirds cheaper than in the UK.

To experience Toronto fully you must visit one of the city's many markets. Kensington Market, on a Saturday morning, offers the most lively experience. There are several delicatessens, fruit shops that spill out onto the pavement and old homes that have been converted into antiques stores and boutiques selling funky, second-hand clothing.

Bookworms should check out the Worlds Largest Bookstore at 20 Edwards Street, for hours of browsing.

Tips: a day trip to Niagara Falls with Niagara Airbus (tel: 001 416 712 2471), will get you close to Niagara on the Lake, which has some wonderful, old-style shops. The fudge at the Maple Leaf Fudge store is recommended.

Savings: because of the strong pound against the Canadian dollar it is affordable to shop at the most exclusive shops in town and still pick up bargains. Shopping in Toronto is exceptional value and this is where the Americans go to do their Christmas shopping.

Getting there: Canadian Airlines operate four non-stop flights a day from London Heathrow, fares start from pounds 401 return. (tel: 0181-577 7722). For an information pack send pounds 1.50-worth of stamps to: Toronto Visitors Association, 11 Blades Court, 121 Deodar Road, London, SW15 2NU.

Further information

US shops won't look Christmassy until after Thanksgiving on 26 November.

Tax: in the US, sales tax is not refundable. In Toronto, national sales tax (7.5 per cent) is refundable, provincial sales tax is not. Refund forms are available at airports, tourist offices and information centres in malls.

Worth buying: Books, CDs, designer-label clothing, jeans, underwear, jewellery (normally 14-carat or above), towels, cotton sheets, sportswear, trainers, children's toys and clothing.

Language differences: tights are called pantyhose, waistcoats are vests, vests are undershirts, dressing gowns are robes, trousers are pants, and knickers are panties. American and Canadian sizes differ from those in Europe.

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