Kate makes stellar debut as Princess Catherine

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Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, wowed screaming Canadian crowds Thursday as she and Prince William began their first official overseas trip as Britain's royal golden couple.

Canadians turned out en masse for a glimpse or even a handshake as Princess Catherine, wearing a navy lace dress by Montreal-born designer Erdem Moraliaoglu, put in a consummate debut performance in the capital Ottawa.

Packed with pomp and pageantry, the North American tour comes just two months after a radiant Kate Middleton walked down the aisle in a fairytale royal wedding watched by an estimated two billion people worldwide.

Popularly known still as Kate, the only hint of trouble for the former Miss Middleton came the moment she stepped off the plane and her flowing dark hair was buffeted by a strong wind as she greeted dignitaries.

The couple's arrival at the National War Memorial in downtown Ottawa triggered excited screams from an estimated 10,000-strong crowd -- several of the women wearing fascinators, the hair accessory of choice for the duchess.

"There he is. There's our future king," Pat Snair shouted from the fringes of the crowd as the 29-year-old newlyweds stepped from the cortege to place a bouquet of flowers before the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

While Prince William, second-in-line to the British throne, has plenty of experience at royal duties, Kate is a relative rookie, but it was clearly the elegant Berkshire, England native that many of the crowd had come to see.

The princess was cool under fire and showed no outward signs of nerves on her first overseas walkabout, smiling broadly and exchanging polite banter as she shook hands with the crowd for longer than the intended hour.

"I'm hoping to find romance like theirs," said one wildly-impressed teenage girl.

The show then moved on to Rideau Hall, the official residence of the governor general, the vice-regal representative of the Canadian and British monarch, Prince William's grandmother Queen Elizabeth II.

"Catherine and I are so delighted to be here in Canada," William said. "We have been looking forward to this moment for a very long time. Quite separately, before we were married, we had both had a longing to come here, instilled in us by our parents and grandparents."

Prince William's great-grandparents King George VI and Queen Elizabeth unveiled the war memorial in 1939 and established a tradition with the first royal walkabout, stopping to chat with some in the 100,000-strong crowd.

"The geography of this country is world renowned, as is the hospitality of its peoples," William said. "We are so very excited about having this opportunity to experience both -- and learn much more about this fantastic country."

Canadian fans had packed every hotel in sight of the capital. Some even camped overnight on the steps of the war memorial, awakened by Canada's national anthem blared from nearby Parliament Hill, where technicians readied sound and stage equipment for Friday's Canada Day celebrations.

"On behalf of all Canadians, I am honored to welcome the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge to Canada for their first official royal tour," Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in his welcoming speech.

Support for the monarchy hovers above 50 percent in Canada and has risen from last year since the massively hyped royal nuptials in April, although there is still a vocal anti-monarchist minority.

In addition to official and military ceremonies, the schedule of the royal visit has lighter moments planned, such as a cooking class, an aboriginal sports event and a rodeo.

Later Thursday, the royals were to attend a barbecue with 120 young Canadians at the residence of the British governor general, where they will spend the night.

On Friday, they cap off their visit to the capital by joining tens of thousands of revellers outside parliament for musical performances and fireworks to celebrate Canada's national holiday.

They then embark on a countrywide tour, taking a cooking class in Montreal on Saturday, before traveling on to Quebec City, Charlottetown, Yellowknife and Calgary.

Prior to their final stop in Canada, the newlyweds, who honeymooned in May in the Seychelles, were expected to sneak away on a romantic getaway to a secluded and undisclosed location in the Rocky Mountains.

Their tour of Canada coincides with a grim milestone -- Friday would have been the 50th birthday of Princess Diana, Prince William's mother, who was thronged by fans herself when she visited Canada in 1983.

Queen Elizabeth II, Prince William's grandmother, is Canada's official head of state but has next-to-no role in the country's governance.

A poll released on the eve of their visit showed one-third of Canadians wish to cut ties with the British monarchy.

Anti-monarchists in the French-speaking independence-leaning province of Quebec added their own event to the royal itinerary, calling for protests when the couple stops in Quebec City on Sunday.

After wrapping up their tour of Canada, the couple will travel to California for three days, July 8-10, for a visit whose highlight will be a black-tie celebrity reception for British filmmakers in Los Angeles.

© 2011 AFP

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