Craig Platt finds shopping is not the main attraction at North America's largest mall.
At first glance, it seemed like any other large shopping centre. Then I saw giant the rollercoaster.
Edmonton, the provincial capital of Alberta, Canada, doesn't seem like the sort of place that would be home to North America's largest mall, but here it is. In a city of less than a million people, this huge surbuban complex has become the city's best-known landmark.
West Edmonton Mall is, to some degree, just like Australia's mammoth shopping centres - endless lanes of chain stores selling electronics, homewares and clothes, clothes, clothes - but there are a few factors that set it apart, such as the indoor amusement park (complete with rollercoaster), the enormous water park and the resident sea lions (seriously).
These extra features mean the mall has more in common with some of the mega-casino complexes in Las Vegas than with your typical shopping centre (and, yes, there's a casino here too). But first and foremost, my girlfriend and I are here to shop. We're nearing the end of our Canadian trip and it's time to start picking up souvenirs and gifts (mainly for ourselves). In fact, every time I had been dragged into a store elsewhere in Canada I'd used the Edmonton visit as a get-out clause.
"Don't buy that now! Wait until we get to the mall," I'd say, and it worked a treat.
On the negative side, I was now paying for it by being dragged into many of the mall's 800 stores to look at handbags, dresses and boots. For the most part, the mall's fashion stores tend to be well-known chains, some available in Australia (Espirit, French Connection, Hugo Boss) some not (Gap, Banana Republic and the seemingly much sought-after Zara). If you're looking for unique or local fashions, the mall's probably not the best place to find them. Edmonton also boasts the very funky Whyte Avenue, which is populated by an endless parade of hip young things and is home to a multitude of cool stores, bars and restaurants.
Back at the mall, I was beginning to discover what sets it apart from Chadstone. The first thing I saw was the ice-skating rink. A huge space in the centre of the mall, it's where young Edmontonians come to show off their skills on the ice. They leap, spin and occasionally fall over, but for the most part they're exceptionally good. You probably have to be, because the rink is open to the rest of the mall, meaning shoppers can stop and watch while they sip their Tim Horton's coffee.
More unusual than the skating rink was the life-sized replica of Christopher Columbus's ship, the Santa Maria, sitting in an indoor lake that's reportedly the biggest in the world. Next to this was the sea lion pool, where a pair of Californian sea lions and their trainers perform free shows twice a day. The pool is next to an enclosure featuring several lemurs and a three-toed sloth. I began to realise why the mall was accredited as a zoo.
Originally opened in 1981 by the Ghermezian family (patriarch Jacob moved to Edmonton from New York and his decendents, including 30-odd grandchildren, still reportedly live in the city) the mall started with 220 stores, but within two years this had grown to 460. Over the next 16 years, at an overall cost of $C1.2 billion ($1.3 billion), it continued to grow and hold the record as the world's largest mall.
It lost that status in 2004, as Asian and Middle Eastern construction booms saw it overtaken (it now ranks as the world's fifth largest).
Still, many of the mall's stats are mind boggling. It covers 492,000 square metres and is home to the world's largest car park (room for 20,000 vehicles). There's 23,500 jobs here – on basic maths that means about 3 per cent of the city's 780,000 population works here.
So large is the place that I can believe it when a taxi driver tells me that groups of teenage girls runaway from home to come and live in the mall (I fail to see any evidence of these girls for myself). And for those visitors who really never want to leave, there's a 355-room hotel, suggestively called Fantasyland, on site.
For many, though, the mall has two major non-shopping drawcards: World Waterpark and Galaxyland.
The first, as the name suggests, is an enormous indoor water park, complete with waterslides several storeys high and the world's largest indoor wave pool. Even though it's a warm day outside, this indoor oasis is packed with families enjoying fun in the … skylight. Not wanting to pack wet togs when we depart in the morning, we opt to give the water park a miss and head instead to Galaxyland.
Galaxyland claims to be the world's largest indoor amusement park, but a first glance at the carousel and toy train it all seems a little smaller and, well, kiddie-sized compared with outdoor parks. But that's before step into the rear section and see the rollercoaster. Called the Mindbender, it's 14 storeys high with three loops and yet, like all the attractions here, it's indoors.
Now, I may be in my mid-30s, but I still love a good rollercoaster. And yet, I like to watch it go around a few times before biting the bullet and getting on board. Unfortunately, it looks like the Mindbender isn't running, as we wait around for several minutes and see no activity. But just as we're about to give up, we see people boarding. Turns out that, as it's a Monday, it's just quiet. We head downstairs and are first in line for the next ride.
As far as rollercoasters go, it's a good one. As we rapidly ascend to the apex at the beginning of the ride, we're treated to a window view out across the top of the mall. Then, the plunge kicks in and we're also turned upside down.
After we can walk straight again, we take on a couple of the tamer rides in the park, before remembering what we came here for in the first place: shopping.
We've been here for hours and still haven't bought a thing. As my girlfriend takes me through another series of clothing shops, I spot a couple of good-looking bargain shirts and a jumper. After the purchase, I lead the shopping stakes 3-0. It's an upset no one would have predicted.
Trading hours are running out, but my girlfriend finally finds something she likes: a bag from Urban Outfitters. Eight hundred shops later, we've come back to the very first place we went into. Still, it's best to shop around.
Craig Platt travelled as a guest of the Canadian Tourism Commission and Tourism Edmonton
V Australia flies from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane to Los Angeles with a connecting codeshare flight to Vancouver with Alaska Airlines.
Air Canada flies from Vancouver to Edmonton. Westjet flies from Los Angeles to Edmonton.
West Edmonton mall is well serviced by public buses. Route 100 runs non-stop between the mall and Edmonton's downtown area. See www.wem.ca
Metterra Hotel on Whyte is a funky, modern hotel located on the equally funky Whyte Avenue, close to a wide variety of clothing stores, restaurants and bars. Rooms from CAD$179 for two people. http://www.metterra.com