(USA TODAY) Prince William, Duchess Kate and the world's most famous baby are off tonight to tour New Zealand and Australia where they will see the sights, show off the royal heir, and help reinforce royal popularity in the far-flung reaches of the Commonwealth.
The Cambridge family — the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and 8-month-old Prince George of Cambridge — are expected to arrive in Wellington, capital of New Zealand, on Monday shortly before noon local time (or shortly before 8 p.m. Sunday in the USA).
Over the next three weeks, their schedule is packed with more than two-dozen public engagements, including at least one and possibly two involving George, who has been only rarely seen since his birth in London in July 2013.
Now Kiwis and Aussies are hoping for an adorable repeat of 1983, when Prince William, then just 9 months old, went on tour Down Under with his parents, Prince Charles and Princess Diana, and made one of the first public appearances of his young life, a "crawlabout" on the lawn of Government House in Wellington.
George could put in an appearance at Government House on April 9 at a gathering of new moms and their babies to honor the New Zealand Plunket Society, a charity that helps Kiwi families after new births.
"They're going to fall in love with George — how could you not with those cheeks," predicts Christine OBrien,editor of the Kate-watching American blog,WhatWouldKateDo.com. "But they're going to fall in love with them as people rather than as intangible creatures who are so far away."
Prince William has long been in love with both Australia and New Zealand, and wants to introduce his wife to their enchantments, according to Miguel Head, their private secretary, during his pre-trip briefing for the media in March.
"There is no hiding the enthusiasm for this visit by both the duke and duchess," Head said. "The duke has no doubt that his wife will fall in love with New Zealand and Australia every bit as much as he did, some years ago."
The Cambridges are flying in on a 25-hour commercial flight, first class British Airways, accompanied by a staff of 11, including a new nanny and a hairdresser. A mob of reporters will be close behind, not to mention the hundreds of journalists expected to greet them in both countries.
"It's a royal tour and the young royals are very popular — they make great copy," says Claudia Joseph, who covers royals for the Mail on Sunday. "These are Commonwealth countries and just as their first tour (after their 2011 wedding) to Canada was hugely successful and hugely popular, this will be the same."
In fact, count on it boosting the popularity of the British monarchy higher than ever, says OBrien. Already, republican sentiment to get rid of the monarchy is at a 20-year low in both countries, according to a February poll Down Under, and the "Aw" factor with George can only help the monarchy.
"(The couple and their baby) are going to remind people how wonderful it is to have a monarchy, and why it's good to be in the Commonwealth," OBrien says.
The visit is already hugely popular judging from the media coverage in both countries. The royal tour is so eagerly anticipated it's front-page news even as the Australians lead the search in the southern Indian Ocean for the vanished Malaysia 370 airliner.
Queen Elizabeth II's representative in New Zealand, Governor-General Jerry Mateparae, has filled his Facebook and Twitter pages with reams of pictures, maps and tidbits of news, including advice on where the best spots are to see the royal couple during their public events there between April 7-16.
In Brisbane, Australia, the local paper obtained and published a list of 224 guests for "the hottest party of the year," a reception with the couple on April 19. The list is heavy on ordinary citizens and local charity stars rather than grand pooh-bahs and politicians.
But interest in the tour is keen in the USA, too, says OBrien. For Americans, she says, it's a chance to see the royal couple as a normal, happy family.
"People like to see them in a way they can relate to them, even though they're on pedestal," she says. "We're going to see a picturesque family doing very normal things — going to the zoo, to museums, to a children's play group. And of course we love to see what she wears!"
Already, there's much speculation about that very topic, with predictions that Kate will favor Aussie and Kiwi designers when possible (as she has done on their previous two overseas tours). OBrien expects to see outfits by Alex Perry, "the Michael Kors of Australia," Ralph & Russo of Australia, Karen Walker of New Zealand, Rebecca Taylor, New Zealand -raised and now in New York, Collette Dinnigan, New Zealand-raised and now based in Australia.
"I don't think we going to see much High Street, I think it's going to be more bespoke pieces," says OBrien, by some of Kate's favorite British designers, such as Jenny Packham and Emilia Wickstead, who was born in New Zealand.
Given the weather (it's the start of fall Down Under) and the variety of events on their schedule, the duchess will have to pack dozens of separate outfits — even taking into account her thrifty tendency to recycle. Also likely in her luggage: Serious jewelry for evening receptions, some borrowed from the queen.
William's grandmother also weighed in on Kate's tour wardrobe, sending her longtime dressing assistant, Angela Kelly, to help the duchess pick fashionable but demure outfits, according to the Telegraph, so as to avoid little embarrassments such as the time in Canada when the skirt of her short dress blew up in the wind.
But it won't all be flirty frocks and dazzling diamonds, given what they'll be doing. Like any royal tour, it will have its serious side: They'll comfort victims of earthquakes and bush fires, lay wreaths at war memorials, attend church services, plant trees, inspect museums and troops, and take lots of tea.
But in New Zealand, they'll receive the traditional Maori ceremonial welcome, take a 50 mph whitewater ride, race each other in yachts, play cricket, and meet Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson.
The Cambridges, being young (both are 32), have already demonstrated they like active and sporty events when they go on tour — hiking, swimming, boating, etc. — in addition to the more ceremonial royal rituals. In his pre-trip briefing, the couple's private secretary noted there will be a number of "informal" match races during the yachting event, for instance.
"As everyone probably knows, the duke and duchess are just a little competitive," Head joked. "The duchess, who follows race sailing keenly, is a huge admirer of New Zealand's sailing achievements."
In Australia, they'll visit the spectacular Sydney Opera House and the equally spectacular Uluru, formerly known as Ayer's Rock, the mysterious rock sentinel rising from the flat expanse of the Outback. Hiking boots might be more appropriate there.
George will not be with them every moment. As his parents did with William in 1983, the baby will be based with his nanny, the newly-hired Spaniard Maria Teresa Turrion Borralo, in borrowed homes, and his parents will return at night to be with him. Their schedule also includes at least a few free days for them to be together away from the public.