The Queen’s royal tours have always packed a diplomatic punch. Over the course of Her Majesty’s seven decades on the throne, marked this year with the Platinum Jubilee, many of her subjects have not only been enthralled by the exotic locations she has visited and the rare glimpse her travels have provided into her private world – they have also been inspired to follow suit.
When her reign began, the idea of jetting off to exotic, far-flung spots was unthinkable for most. But the decade that saw her ascend to the throne also saw the advent of the package holiday: suddenly, Her Majesty’s glamorous and once intrepid tours became something that the public could emulate, booking one day and jetting off the next. It made the Queen’s epic travels an even greater source of fascination.
As the most well-travelled British monarch in history, the 95-year-old great-grandmother has visited every country in the Commonwealth and many more besides, clocking up an astonishing 290 state visits to 117 different nations since 1952. (Her first as Queen was meeting governor of Kenya Sir Philip Mitchell on February 6 1952, upon hearing the news of her father George VI’s death while staying at the Tree Tops Lodge in Aberdare National Park.) She went on to circumnavigate the globe 42 times, travelling an estimated 1,032,513 miles, before completing her last tour, a trip to Malta with Prince Philip, in 2015 – thought likely to have been her final overseas trip and a fitting end, since it was where they lived when they first married in 1947.
Declaring on her 21st birthday that, “My whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong,” the Queen made it her mission to meet as many of her subjects as possible – wherever they were on the planet.
As she said in her 1953 Christmas broadcast, recorded in Auckland, New Zealand: “I set out on this journey in order to see as much as possible of the people and countries of the Commonwealth and Empire. I want to show that the Crown is not merely an abstract symbol of our unity, but a personal and living bond between you and me.”
Always dressed in bright colours so that she would be “seen to be believed”, she ensured that she carried out lengthy royal walkabouts wherever possible, meeting millions in the process.
Behind the scenes, royal tours would be meticulously planned in advance with military precision. All members of the entourage would carry a pocket-sized rundown of events, timetabled to the nearest minute to ensure the tour ran as smoothly as possible. However, as her grandsons Princes William and Harry admitted in a TV documentary to mark the Duke of Edinburgh’s death last year, she and Philip would always enjoy it “when things went wrong”.
One of the funniest aspects of touring the Commonwealth for them must surely have been visiting the tiny Pacific island of Tanna in Vanuatu, where the Yaohnanen tribe worshipped the Duke as a god, believing him to be the son of an ancient mountain spirit.
The 1970s saw the Queen take on the most foreign travel: she packed in an astonishing 52 Commonwealth visits and a further 21 trips to non-Commonwealth countries over the decade, largely to mark her Silver Jubilee in 1977. Back then, the royal couple would spend months abroad, often travelling the seas on the Royal Yacht Britannia. With all its home comforts, including mahogany woodwork and chintzy sofas and armchairs, it became their preferred method of travel (being a former Royal Navy officer, Philip was in his element).
The royals completed 968 official voyages on Britannia during more than a million miles and nearly 44 years of service before it was decommissioned in 1997. It is now permanently berthed at Leith in Edinburgh, where it draws more than 300,000 tourists each year.
Soon, long-haul travel was transferred to air, with the Queen accompanied by an entourage including a hairdresser, surgeon and chauffeur. As the years went on, tours became shorter (though the luggage no less extensive, with the sovereign taking an average 30 outfits for a 10-day tour), but they never became less important: in 1986, the Queen became the first British monarch to visit China, and in 2011, the first in a century to tour the Republic of Ireland.
Throughout the past seven decades, the Queen’s overseas tours have been symbolic not only of the ground-breaking nature of her historic reign, but also of her personal curiosity in the world and its people – a curiosity she has shared with us all.
Kenya (January-February 1952)
The best-remembered of all the Queen’s journeys may well be the first – for the simple reason that she began it as a princess. Her trip to Kenya at the start of 1952 was less a formal visit and more a personal getaway – a short safari with her husband prior to an official tour of New Zealand and Australia in her poorly father’s stead. But it became far more when, on the night of February 6, George VI died, and his eldest daughter woke up as Britain’s head of state.
Sadly, 2021 silenced two key echoes of that break. Not just in the death of Prince Philip, but in the demise of Treetops. The lodge in Aberdare National Park where the royal couple stayed that night – or, at least, the modern version of it – closed in October; a victim of the pandemic and the consequent drop in the number of tourists visiting Kenya.
In regal footsteps
The Aberdare Range is part of the East African Rift Valley – the tectonic split that is thought to have been the key site of human evolution. The area features in the seven-night Tawny Eagle Fly-in Safari sold by Expert Africa (020 3405 6666; expertafrica.com), which also includes three days of searching white rhino from the rustic Ol Pejeta Bush Camp in Laikipia County. From £3,810pp, flights extra
Brazil and Chile (November 1968)
The popular memory often only recalls the Queen’s forays to favoured corners of the Commonwealth, but plenty of her journeys have dipped into both the tropical and the adventurous. A case in point was a two-week trek across South America in 1968. It was an exotic affair that carried her to the Brazilian cities of Recife, Salvador, Brasilia, Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Having driven alongside Rio’s Copacabana Beach in an open-topped Rolls-Royce, the monarch crossed the Andes to Chile, visiting Santiago and the oceanside city of Valparaiso.
In 2006, the Queen recalled the first leg of the tour fondly while hosting a banquet for Brazilian president Luiz da Silva at Buckingham Palace. “I have vivid and happy memories of my visit to Brazil with Prince Philip in 1968, especially the warmth and hospitality of the Brazilian people,” she said.
In regal footsteps
Journey Latin America (020 3733 2807; journeylatinamerica.co.uk) offers a 16-day Signature Brazil, Argentina and Chile tour, which reprises much of the route, from £4,730pp, flights extra
Mexico (February-March 1975)
The most intriguing of the Queen’s non-Commonwealth tours of the 1970s found her back on Latin American soil, admiring traces of the Zapotec, Aztec and Mayan eras.
A sea of dancers in red, white and green greeted her in Mexico City’s Zocalo, the vast plaza that was once the core of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan. The route carried her and Prince Philip south to Oaxaca and the Monte Alban archaeological site, at one time the heart of the Zapotec civilisation.
From there, they forged east to the Yucatan Peninsula, where current tourist draw Cancun was little more than an idea in the sand. Instead, they took in state capital Merida, with its 16th-century cathedral, and the pyramids of Uxmal, which spoke proudly to their visitors of the Mayan world.
In regal footsteps
The 20-day Mexico’s Southern Route offered by Steppes Travel (01285 880980; steppestravel.com) follows a similar path as it swerves from the capital and the ruins of Teotihuacan to the beach at Tulum. From £7,950pp, flights extra
Australia (March 1986; April-May 1988)
The Queen was on familiar Commonwealth turf in the 1980s, with two trips down under. In contrast to recent talk of severing ties with the monarchy (a poll last year showed 48 per cent of Australians are in favour of the country becoming a republic), each visit sparked scenes of public jubilation.
The first – to sign the Australia Act, which made Australian law independent of the British parliament – homed in on Canberra and Sydney. It sparked a joyous response in the latter: well-wishers gathered at every point on Macquarie Street. The second, to celebrate the country’s bicentenary, was all but exhaustive, rolling into every state and territory, except Victoria (also visited in 1986) and the Northern Territory.
In regal footsteps
Trailfinders’ 16-day Wonders of the Coast from West to East holiday (020 7084 6500; trailfinders.com) is almost as comprehensive as the 1988 royal route, crossing from Perth to Cairns and tropical North Queensland. From £1,419pp (not including flights)
Canada (August 1994)
The summer of 1994 brought the third of what would be four state visits to Canada over the course of that decade. Here was a detailed itinerary, in the company of Prince Edward and the Duke of Edinburgh, that ticked off Nova Scotia (the provincial capital Halifax and its waterfront neighbour Dartmouth), and even ventured to just 250 miles south of the Arctic Circle to the Northwest Territories and the doughty regional capital Yellowknife.
The tour found its main purpose in British Columbia, where the capital, Victoria, was set to stage the 15th Commonwealth Games. The Queen cut the ribbon on the event and went to see some of the wilder parts of the province, such as the cities of Prince George and Prince Rupert – and Khutzeymateen Inlet, where grizzly bears stalk the sea’s edge.
In regal footsteps
Canadian Sky (01342 395207; canadiansky.co.uk) shows off the very best of British Columbia with Explore BC: Coast & Culture. This 16-day odyssey pairs Victoria (arguably the prettiest of the Canadian capitals) with Vancouver, drives to the forested upper reaches of Vancouver Island, and boards the ferry to Prince Rupert, keeping a lookout for orcas en route. From £1,969 a head, including flights
The USA (May 2007)
The Queen’s first state visit to America came early in her reign, with a 1957 journey to New York and Washington DC. She was back a mere two years later, the Royal Yacht Britannia cruising along the newly opened St Lawrence Seaway all the way to Chicago. But the most symbolic of her stateside tours came five decades later, on the 400th anniversary of the creation of the first permanent British settlement on American terrain.
Jamestown (historicjamestowne.org) was founded in what would become Virginia in 1607. Four centuries on, the Queen was there to mark its big birthday, a representative of the mother country that was cast off by the descendants of those first New World immigrants in 1776. Pertinently, Her Majesty’s itinerary also took in nearby Williamsburg, the Virginia town whose living history museum (colonialwilliamsburg.org) focuses on the revolutionary era that preceded that epic divorce of nations.
In regal footsteps
Bon Voyage (0808 109 8316; bon-voyage.co.uk) offers a 15-night Virginia at its Finest tour that visits both sites, plus Washington DC. From £2,295pp, with flights
Malta (November 2015)
After seven decades on the throne – and a personal route map that extends to more than a million miles travelled – few would begrudge the Queen reining in her globetrotting in recent years. Her last overseas state visit to date occurred in 2015: a dash to Malta to open the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in capital city Valletta that would have felt as much pleasure as work.
The Queen has an enduring fondness for the country. She and the Duke of Edinburgh lived on the island – in the village of Gwardamanġa – at various stages between 1949 and 1951, in the early years of their marriage.
In regal footsteps
Cox & Kings (0330 8181916; coxandkings.co.uk) pairs Valletta (and the five-star Phoenicia hotel on the edge of its historic heart) with the country’s second island in a seven-day Boutique Malta & Gozo break. From £1,590pp (with flights)
Scotland (July-October 2021)
For all the fabulous locations involved, you could hardly describe the Queen’s state visits as “holidays”. Her refuge has always been Balmoral, the Aberdeenshire estate that has been a royal residence since 1852. It was to here she turned last summer, in the wake of Prince Philip’s death on April 9.