When it comes to getting away from the rat race of city life, nothing beats a trip to the mall. It’s like going for a long walk without having to take the often unpredictable Icelandic weather into account – plus there’s biscotti. For a long time, Iceland only had one mall to speak of, Kringlan. All that changed on 10 October 2001, when Kópavogur’s Smáralind (“the source of clover”) Mall opened to the unconvinced Icelandic public. Does Iceland really need two malls, many asked, let alone within a few kilometres of each other? Yet in the short span of time it’s been around, Smáralind has been giving Kringlan a run for its money, especially during the Christmas season, when performances from big names like singer Birgitta Haukdal become weekend occurrences. The mall is also, on many levels, more family oriented than Kringlan. To my shame, I hadn’t visited Smáralind until assigned to do so. By the end of my afternoon there, I became convinced that Smáralind will soon be the place referred to as “Iceland’s mall.”
A word about getting there and away: your best bet is to take the #11 bus but, possibly due to the recent re-working of bus routes, it’s one hell of a journey. I took the bus from the Lækjartorg bus station in downtown Reykjavík on a weekday afternoon and it still took half an hour to get there. While not unfeasibly long for a bus ride to a mall in a neighbouring town, the journey back might give you the impression that you got on the wrong bus – boarding from the stop located across the street from the Bræðurnir Ormsson entrance of Smáralind, the bus makes a complete circle through the housing developments around the mall for half an hour before finally heading onto the highway back to Reykjavík. Why the neighbourhood within walking distance of the mall should get such extensive bus service is a subject for another article.
If the length of the trip doesn’t make you feel as though you’ve really travelled, the environment will. Kópavogur looks like a prefabricated town: new apartment buildings neatly arranged around new shopping centres, with new homes orbiting around Smáralind in concentric rings. The first thing you notice about Smáralind when you walk through its automated revolving doors (historic note: these very doors once cut a small dog in half a couple years back) is the spaciousness. Obvious attention was put into giving plenty of room to stroll. In many ways, this is in keeping with the layout of Kópavogur itself – sprawling but orderly, often overtly sterile, and devoid of much of the chaotic character that makes Reykjavík so interesting. The layout is also pretty straightforward – two levels, both of them wide open, stretching from one end to the other in a more or less straight direction. This means that you can pretty much walk in, take a brief look around, see at a glance what stores are available, which those without a lot of time on their hands for shopping will appreciate.
It had been a while since I’d been outside of downtown Reykjavík, and I wanted to take the time to relish the experience of being away. For this reason, I was more interested in the smaller, easy-to-overlook stores.
The first place I went into was Byggt og Búið (Built and Finished), a discount appliance store of cunning deception. The front is loaded with smaller gizmos and gadgets – I found a Tristar toaster for 3990 ISK and Pulpa juicers (available in pink, orange, yellow and blue) for 2937 ISK. Sneakily hidden in the back and to the right, however, are the refrigerators, dishwashers, and washing machines at prices that rival those of better-known large appliance stores like Bræðurnir Ormsson.
Nearby was Ice in a Bucket, an accessories store for those who want bracelets and scrunchies to coordinate with their outfits. Be warned, though: your wardrobe should mostly be pink, as this is the predominant colour of Ice in a Bucket’s products. I also spent a lot of time in Dótabúðin (The Stuff Store), a toy store for the four-to-ten crowd. Sure, there were puzzles, board games and toy guns, but what caught my fancy was Schleich (German for “Slink”), a collection of plastic farm animals for a trifling 425 ISK. You heard it here first: these items will soon be adorning office desks around the country.
This shopping was working up an appetite, so I went to check out the food court, without a doubt the truest test of any mall’s worth. There I found a TGI Friday’s and a Burger King. For those thinking of their health, there’s also Asian Express, which serves buffet-style meals for under 1000 ISK. There’s also Energia, a small restaurant with a menu dominated by salads, pastas and chicken. Nearby is the sprawling Café Adesso (Italian for “now”), a coffee shop with light fare for a reasonable price. Being the discriminating gourmand that I am, I opted for a double Whopper with cheese, an order of fries, and six chicken nuggets at Burger King.
Smáralind is predominantly a clothes mall, though in many cases it would be hard to tell the shops apart if they didn’t have different names. With this in mind, it should also be noted that the many clothing stores are not the main attractions – those would be Hagkaup, Debenham’s, the movie theatre Smárabíó and the Winter Garden.
Hagkaup is the store where you can find everything – clothes, books, food and music – for a price. The mark-up here tends to be high (one reader wrote to point out that the same items sold at discount grocery store Bónus are often sold at Hagkaup for a much higher price – both companies are owned by Baugur Group), but nowhere else are you going to find free range French duck for your Christmas dinner.
Debenham’s (which bills itself as “Britain’s favourite department store”) takes up two levels of the mall and has about everything you would expect – clothes, furnishings, appliances and so forth. If you like what you see there, you have Baugur Group to thank: they bought franchise rights to the company in 1999.
Smárabíó stands apart from other movie theatres in Iceland for one reason: luxusbíó (“luxury movie theatre”). What makes luxusbíó luxurious? Two things: the seats, which are more or less big puffy recliners, and you can bring booze. For this you pay 1700 ISK (as opposed to 800 ISK for the commoner’s cinema).
The Winter Garden is Smáralind’s crown jewel. This is basically an enormous space for your kids to play in. During my visit, they had a Lego exhibition set up. Kids could build their own designs and display them, play with remote-controlled cars, and generally wallow in Lego goodness. While this exhibition ended on 13 November, December promises even better things, as the Winter Garden turns into Christmas Land. Apart from a miniature Christmas village, the area will this month feature music and sketches, children’s television personality Afi (Grandpa) and singer Birgitta Haukdal, among others. The performances are held every weekend in December, from 14:00 to 17:00. If your kids get bored with this, you can also take them upstairs to “Veröldin Okkar” (Our World), a vast children’s playland.
All this, combined with a touted free baby carriage rental, gave the impression that Smáralind was the family mall. A local employee backed me up. Elisabet, who works at Te og kaffi, used to work at Kringlan and has been at Smáralind for about a year. When asked what difference she saw between Kringlan customers and Smáralind customers, she said, “Here, there are more young parents with lots of children, and more people from the countryside.”
While she described Christmastime in Smáralind as “a madhouse,” she still maintained that she liked working in Smáralind more than Kringlan.
“There’s more space for families here,” she said. “You really get the feeling this place was made for them.”
To get to Smáralind, take the #11 city bus, or follow any large road. Smáralind, Hagasmára 1, 201 Kópavogur, 528 8000. www.smaralind.is.