Travel: The Mall shopaholics the merrier: Simon Calder checks out the checkouts at America's biggest shopping centre

You wouldn't come here for a holiday. From outside it looks like the antithesis of a tourist attraction: a concrete megalith girdled in high-density car parks, amid bleak Nineties suburban despondency.

Yet this unpleasant building in an unpromising location, beneath the flightpath of a busy Midwestern airport could change your ideas (or at least some people's ideas) of what tourism is about. Airlines are already selling package tours where the purpose is purchase and the destination irrelevant.

Minneapolis, one of those cities you have heard of but cannot quite place, now has a tourist attraction: the Mall of America.

You jet in, check in to an airport hotel, then shop, sightsee and snack in a carefully controlled environment; nature manifests herself only in the daylight seeping through the transluscent roof five floors up. Any day of the week you can fly nonstop from Gatwick to the middle of Minnesota, and start shopping within half-an-hour of touchdown.

The world's first mall put the state on the retailing map in the Fifties, when the nearby town of Bloomington came up with the idea. Now Minnesota has taken American shopping culture to its logical conclusion. This brand new 'leisure complex' has more than 350 stores in 4 million sq ft of retailing, parking space for 13,000 cars, 14 cinema screens, and 38 of what Americans refer to unappetizingly as 'food outlets'.

The basic structure is a school hall taken to the nth degree, a high-tech cavern measuring a mile in circumference. The centrepiece is Camp Snoopy, a complete amusement park like a low-rent Disneyland, whose largest resident is an inflatable dog.

There are no shoppers, only 'guests', at the Mall. (You will lose consumer credibility if you fail to pronounce it to rhyme with 'fall'.) Even British visitors, whose currency suddenly shrank in value two years ago, are welcome.

Those whose sterling is severely battered could call in at Everything's A Dollar. Every article is priced at dollars 1 - a straw hat, a porcelain bunny or a book of Art Garfunkel's prose poems. You can even buy the garish orange plastic shopping basket which you load up with bargains. 'We Mean EVERYTHING' screams the slogan below the store name.

A more accurate title would be Everything's A Dollar Plus Seven Cents Tax. Minnesota's 7 per cent sales levy applies to all goods bar food and clothing.

Bargains can be found in other stores: electronic hardware, CDs and clothes cost the same in the Mall in dollars as the price in Britain in pounds. So even after paying duty to import them (if you buy more than the pounds 136-worth you are allowed free of duty), you are still quids in.

But you don't have to shop until you drop - you don't

actually have to shop at all, since Mall culture is a fascinating, life-embracing affair. Visitors can take exercise on the Official Mall Walk - a complete circuit of the first floor. If the going gets tough you can rent an 'electronic convenience vehicle', a battery-powered guest mover.

The Mall was designed for access, so wheelchair users can also observe the antics of frantic shoppers, then take the lift to the top to enjoy the view of this man-meets-machine biospherical playground. Like clockwork, guests ascend on chrome-clad elevators, trucks clatter around the Ripsaw

rollercoaster bearing a moderately petrified human payload, and the staff of Camp Snoopy - dressed in park ranger outfits

coerce kids into enjoying themselves.

Strangest store in the Mall is Oshman's Super Sports, where you can test equipment before buying. Like a squash racquet? Try it out on the in-store court. Need a gun? No firing range (so far), but you can buy a perfectly serviceable Smith & Wesson .357 revolver for pounds 190. Want a pair of skis? An ingenious rotating dry ski-slope enables you to test them while shoppers stroll by, and allows you to boast 'I skiied the Mall'.

Guests at the Mall have left a commercial vacuum. The hearts of the twin cities of Minneapolis and St Paul lie 10 miles north, brooding at each other across the Mississippi and bemoaning the new retailing upstart. They are America's best-kept pair of tourist secrets: each has a historic centre, fine modern architecture (Scandinavia collides with the Midwest) and excellent cultural life.

The region has echoes of American Indian civilisation: Hiawatha Avenue crosses Minnehaha Creek on the way from Minneapolis to the Mall.

The Indians have cashed in on the Mall by setting up a mock casino. A posse of one-armed bandits is lined up, immobilised, on the second level to tempt you into boarding a bus for an hour's ride to a real casino, boasting 'Las Vegas-style action'. Legalised gambling was confined to Atlantic City and the state of Nevada, but a state law loophole allows casinos on land belonging to Lower Sioux Indians. In a neat reversal of ancient exploitation, the Indians are selling beads, in the form of gambling chips, in return for hard cash.

It may not have the grandeur of, say, a national park, but the Mall of America is good fun - and good value. Not one of life's shoppers, I intended spending nothing but time. I came away with a haircut, a pair of trousers and a bagful of bike accessories. Only an unexpected collision with my credit card limit prevented the purchase of a pounds 200 fax machine.

The Mall also inspires enterprise: I started wondering if the shoppers of Strasbourg, Maastricht or Brussels patronise a store called 'Everything's an Ecu'?

FACTFILE

Getting there: Northwest, the official airline of the Mall of America, is the only carrier with nonstop service from the UK to Minneapolis; it flies daily from Gatwick.

Major Travel (071-485 7107) offers a pounds 446 return fare on

Northwest (plus pounds 10 weekend supplement each way), including tax. From October, it expects to run inclusive tours from London to the Mall. Meanwhile, bus No 7 goes there from Minneapolis airport every 20 minutes.

Accommodation: available near by at the Comfort Inn

(0101 612 854 3400) and Days Inn (0101 612 854 8400).

Further information: Tourism Department, Mall of America, Bloomington MN 55425 (001 612 851 3500).

(Photograph omitted)

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