On the winding route from friendship to marriage, Prince William and Kate Middleton have transformed mere buildings into monuments of their love. There’s St. Andrew's University, where they met as college students in 2001. There's St. James's Palace, where they held their engagement-day photo call in November 2010. And, according to Hana Umezawa, who is leading today’s Will & Kate Royal Wedding Walking Tour through London, there’s Mahiki, the Polynesian-themed tiki bar where Wills drowned his sorrows during the couple's brief split in April 2007. "He reportedly jumped up on a table and yelled out 'I'm Free!' to the packed club and went on to rack up a bar tab of £11,050 ($18,000)," Umezawa tells a group of 15 mostly American tourists. Jaws drop. A woman orders her husband to take her picture next to a Polynesian idol stationed outside the bar.
Searching the streets of London for the essence of Will and Kate may seem strange especially since their romance blossomed in Scotland. But in the world of royal-wedding tourism, travel operators know that if you offer it, they will come. Since January, a handful of formal and informal walking tours has cropped up with the promise of retracing Kate and Wills' footsteps from debauched Mayfair nightclubs to the big day at Westminster Abbey. None is more popular than the Will & Kate Royal Wedding Walking Tour, run by the travel company Celebrity Planet, which has so far escorted 700 tourists around Prince William's favorite haunts for the princely sum of £15 ($24) a head. "Americans are obsessed with our royal family," says James Bonney, the firm's founder. "You could just walk around these landmarks on your own, but you haven’t taken the time to compile the depth and knowledge we impart on you. People pay for the story."
The two-hour stroll through the highs and lows of the royal romance includes stops at Garrard's Jewellers, makers of Princess Diana's oval blue sapphire engagement ring which now belongs to Kate; White's Gentleman's Club, where Prince Charles held his bachelor party in 1981; and Queen Elizabeth I's birthplace, her maternal grandfather's former home at 17 Bruton Street, which is now an upscale Chinese restaurant. Some of the locations on the tour seem at best tangential to Kate and Wills' courtship. But tourists' appetite for the royal family helps them look past the fragmented narrative. "William and Kate are a very sweet couple, and it's fascinating to see what parts of London they frequent," says Judy McQuary, who left her husband at home in Canada so she could indulge her Anglophilia solo. "I've been interested in the royal family forever. They've always been a part of my life, and Kate Middleton will be too."
But the middle-aged women on the tour many of whom clearly worship at the altar of bride-to-be Catherine may not always like what they hear. Outside a branch of Jigsaw, they learn that the closest thing Kate has ever had to a real job was working at the clothing chain as a part time accessories buyer a position she nabbed through a family connection and held for less than a year. The tour nods at Middleton family aspiration as well. Standing outside of 13 Albemarle Street, the former offices of Kate's great-grandfather Noel, Umezawa explains how he set up a trust fund for the education of future Middletons. That allowed commoner Kate and her sister Pippa to attend the exclusive Marlborough College despite the fact their mother descends from a coal miner and worked for years as a flight attendant. Their social ascent has left plenty of aristocrats feeling ill. "The two have been nicknamed, rather unkindly, 'The Wisteria Sisters,'" Umezawa says. "Highly decorative, terribly fragrant, with a ferocious ability to climb."
Despite its success, the Kate and Wills walking tour isn't Celebrity Planet's most popular offering. But the company's tours dedicated to Harry Potter, the Beatles and Jack the Ripper have all benefited from the attention that the royal couple are getting. Major television networks from Australia, Canada, China, Japan and the U.S. have covered the Kate and Wills outing, hoping to give their viewers the chance to live vicariously through the footage. "Our democracy is a little boring for some people," says Torsten Huhn, the London correspondent for German public radio station NDR, who keeps prodding Umezawa with an oversized microphone. "With politicians it’s always the same. But a king or queen brings costumes and crowns and pageantry."
And, every generation or so, the monarchy also brings a blockbuster royal wedding. Stopping outside Westminster Abbey, the tourists stand on pins and needles as Umezawa brings the tour to an end. She isn't saying anything particularly insightful a number of kings and queens are buried here, Diana's funeral took place here in 1997." But for a group of royalists dreaming of a fairy tale wedding replete with carriages and trumpeters and funny-looking hats, it's music to their ears. "Kate, upon her marriage, will be endowed with a host of Royal titles," Umezawa says. "But there's one title she's yet to inherit: that of People's Princess. She'll have to work hard to earn it." Given that a group of Americans has walked 1.5 miles in two hours in the hopes of gaining some insight into her life, she may already have.