Queen Elizabeth II’s royal tours always packed a diplomatic punch. Over the course of her seven decades on the throne, many of her subjects were not only enthralled by the exotic locations she visited and the rare glimpse her travels provided into her private world – they were also 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 glamorous and once intrepid tours became something that the public could emulate, booking one day and jetting off the next. It made the late Queen’s epic travels an even greater source of fascination.
As the most well-travelled British monarch in history, she visited every country in the Commonwealth and many more besides, clocking up an astonishing 290 state visits to 117 different nations. (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 – 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,” Queen Elizabeth 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 Queen Elizabeth 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 Royal Family 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 Queen Elizabeth 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, she became the first British monarch to visit China, and in 2011, the first in a century to tour the Republic of Ireland.
Throughout her time on the throne, Queen Elizabeth’s overseas tours were 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 shared with us all.
Kenya (January-February 1952)
The best-remembered of all the late 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.
Brazil and Chile (November 1968)
The popular memory often only recalls Queen Elizabeth’s forays to favoured corners of the Commonwealth, but plenty of her journeys 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, Queen Elizabeth 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.
Mexico (February-March 1975)
The most intriguing of Queen Elizabeth’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 hotspot 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 speak proudly to their visitors of the Mayan world.
Australia (March 1986; April-May 1988)
Queen Elizabeth 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.
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, which 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. Queen Elizabeth 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.
The USA (May 2007)
Queen Elizabeth’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, Queen Elizabeth 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.
Malta (November 2015)
After so long on the throne – and a personal route map of more than a million miles – common sense dictated that, by the 2010s, Queen Elizabeth rein in her globetrotting. Her last overseas state visit occurred in 2015: a dash to Malta to open the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in a capital city, Valletta, that would have felt as much a pleasure as work.
Queen Elizabeth had 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.
For all the fabulous locations involved, you could hardly describe Queen Elizabeth’s state visits as “holidays”. Her refuge was always Balmoral, the Aberdeenshire estate that has been a royal residence since 1852. It was to here she turned in the wake of Prince Philip’s death on April 9 2021, and it was here that she spent her final days.