A royal baby, a royal wedding and a royal christening â€” so far 2018 has been an epic year for royal watchers.
It seems the royal family â€” whose popularity dipped after Princess Dianaâ€™s death in 1997 â€” is back in a big way and likely to be around for some time.
That bodes well for travellers who might hope for a royal sighting during a visit to the U.K., or who want to indulge in a few royal-calibre experiences.
London and Edinburgh have royal hangouts in spades. Hereâ€™s how to put a royal spin on your visit:
During a visit to nearby Windsor Castle, Amanda Bryett of Windsor Tour Guides told my group of travel writers that many people think the queen lives at Buckingham Palace, when in fact Windsor is her home, and the place where she and Prince Philip spend their free weekends and family holidays.
Buckingham Palace, she said, is â€śthe office.â€ť
Indeed, Buckingham is a working palace where much of the Queenâ€™s business is conducted and most formal engagements are held.
But for 10 weeks each summer, ordinary sods can walk through its gilded gates and explore the magnificent State Rooms, and watch the pomp and ceremony of the changing of the guard.
Buckingham opened for tours July 21 and will be open through Sept. 20 this year. See royalcollection.org.uk.
The birthplace and childhood home of Queen Victoria â€” and the last home of Princess Diana â€” Kensington Palace continues to house a raft of royal residents. Thirteen royal family members â€” among them Prince Harry and Meghan, Prince William, Kate and their three children â€” currently live there.
The royal wing is off-limits but regular folk can explore the Kingâ€™s State Apartments and the garden, where Harry and Meghanâ€™s engagement photographs were taken.
In addition, there is an excellent roster of temporary and permanent exhibits. Among them:
* The not to be missed Diana: Her Fashion Story displays many of the beautiful outfits made for the ultra-chic â€śpeopleâ€™s princess.â€ť (On through Feb. 28, 2019.)
* Victoria Revealed focuses on Queen Victoriaâ€™s personal belongings and the rooms where she grew up. See hrp.org.uk/kensington-palace.
Ever wonder where the Queen buys her tea and crumpets? Establishments that supply goods and services to the royal households display a crest-like symbol called a Royal Warrant.
London places with Royal Warrants include:
* Fortnum & Mason â€” aka the Queenâ€™s grocer â€” sells delectable edibles, teas, treats, food hampers, home goods and more.
* Catherine Walker & Co., a design studio that has outfitted Princess Di and other royal women.
* Floris, the royal perfumery, has been creating signature scents for royals for more than 100 years. Their secret formulas are kept in a ledger.
* Gieves & Hawkes. The bespoke menâ€™s tailor has outfitted every reigning male monarch since King George III, and created a dazzling uniform for the King of Pop â€” Michael Jackson. The Savile Row shop also maintains the uniforms of the Queenâ€™s bodyguards, which are displayed upstairs.
No one knows London better than the folks at Brit Movie Tours.
The company offers entertaining group or private tours on everything from Harry Potter to Downton Abbey. Some guides â€” such as Dewi Evans â€” can dish on the royals and their unofficial stomping grounds, too. Tour prices start around $15 for a 2.5-hour walking tour. See britmovietours.com.
Since opening in 1931, The Dorchester has been a magnet for royals and celebrities.
Prince Philipâ€™s stag night was held in the hotelâ€™s Park Suite. Queen Elizabeth, Princess Margaret, Prince Charles, Princess Diana all visited. Elizabeth Taylor liked the lux Mayfair hotel so much she stayed there will all of her seven husbands (not at one time!), and launched her White Diamonds perfume in the glittering ballroom.
Other celeb guests include the Beatles, Kate Moss, the Kardashians, Oprah Winfrey and more.
We have a royal suite but we never talk about it, and we never show it,a discreet staffer at The Dorchester hotel confides
On a previous visit, I indulged in afternoon tea in the Promenade restaurant, which is lavishly decorated with fresh flowers, potted palms and rich upholstery.
This time I got the royal treatment during a two-night stay.
Needless to say, the room was beautifully appointed but it was the small niceties that impressed most: Gracious service, an in-room cocktails tray, a cheese platter, and a cute little rubber ducky for the bath.
* The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (Will and Kate) are known to frequent Tomâ€™s Kitchen in Chelsea. The casual eatery run by award-winning chef Tom Aikens is the place to go for modern British comfort food.
* Founded by a theatre agent â€” and one of Princess Dianaâ€™s favourite haunts â€” Daphneâ€™s is a Chelsea institution that has been drawing celebs for 50 years.
* Sketch London near Oxford Circus is fun and funky with tasty food and creative cocktails. But its Instagrammable, seasonally decorated, bathrooms steal the show.
* You canâ€™t go wrong with any of the restaurants at The Dorchester or sister property 45 Park Lane. But the three-Michelin-star Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester is a very special treat.
Iâ€™m a big fan of mystery writer Ian Rankin, whose Inspector Rebus novels portray a gritty Edinburgh. So it was nice to visit this magnificent and safe city for a more realistic (murder-free) perspective.
Within an hour of landing â€” after an overnight flight with a connection at Londonâ€™s Heathrow â€” our group is learning to blend gin at a class offered by Edinburgh Gin.
While Scotland is better known for its whisky, gin has long been a favourite tipple in the U.K. Gin and Dubonnet with lots of ice and a slice of lemon is reportedly the Queenâ€™s go-to pre-lunch cocktail.
Master distiller Dave Wilkinson led our fun session, which included gin tasting, a hands-on blending workshop, and a small bottle of our signature blend to take home.
There are a variety of tours. Gin Making starts at about $150. See edinburghgin.com.
Edinburghâ€™s Royal Mile is book-ended by royal history.
Start at Holyrood Palace â€” the Queenâ€™s official residence in Scotland and once home to Mary, Queen of Scots, and Bonnie Prince Charlie â€” and end at Edinburgh Castle, home to Scotlandâ€™s glittering crown jewels and the place where Maryâ€™s son James was born.
James became King of Scotland, then King of England and Ireland when the English and Scottish crowns merged. Both properties are open for tours.
Places of note between the royal edifices: The modern Scottish Parliament, the Museum of Edinburgh, St. Gilesâ€™ Cathedral, and many shops selling tartan everything, where â€” should you be inclined â€” you can go mad for plaid.
Canadians can be forgiven for not being focused on Royal Yacht Britannia in 1991, when glamorous Princess Diana â€” along with Prince Charles and the young princes â€” stood on her deck and charmed the country as she bid Toronto farewell.
Today, visitors can go aboard the decommissioned royal yacht for a closer look. The ship is permanently docked in Leith, Edinburghâ€™s maritime area.
Among the things to see are the unfussy living quarters occupied by the royal family, the captainâ€™s quarters, the engine room and a vintage Rolls-Royce Phantom V used by the Queen during official visits.
Most visitors take the self-guided audio tour, but diehard royal fans or groups can arrange a private tour. Either way, youâ€™ll hear some fun bits such as how yachtsmen used Britanniaâ€™s garage as a beer fridge, or how it takes three hours to set the table in the state dining room.
Our excellent guide Roger Moran, spoke of the Queenâ€™s fondness for Britannia and how she said it was â€śa place where she could relax.â€ť
Other experiences include afternoon tea. See royalyachtbritannia.co.uk.
* Tea at the Balmoral Hotel is a refined but relaxed affair of delicate sandwiches, pretty pastries and a flute â€” or two â€” of Champagne. The setting â€” the elegant glass-domed Palm Court â€” is reminiscent of another era. See roccofortehotels.com.
* Located beside Edinburgh Castle, the Cannonball restaurant has a storied history as a tenement and a school. The food and cocktails are fab, and itâ€™s said to have a resident ghost named Alice.
* We stayed at The Glasshouse, a church-turned-hotel with spacious modern rooms, and an excellent restaurant that uses local meats, fish and produce into its menus. See theglasshousehotel.co.uk.