Meghan Markle sneaked back to the Vancouver island mansion where she spent Christmas on a £134 budget flight after jetting back to Canada in the wake of shock Royal resignation announcement, it is understood.
With the runaway Royals’ finances and spending under fierce scrutiny, film of her arrival courtesy of Canada’s WestJet airline might have provided welcome publicity, but she eluded waiting TV crews who, assuming she was coming in on a private jet, focused their attention elsewhere.
With no return flight booked and no official UK engagements, she could remain in Canada for the foreseeable future – and, when he arrives, so too could Harry.
To their new Canadian neighbours, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex seemed ‘just like regular guys’. Sure, they were staying in an £11 million waterside mansion, but they were friendly, polite and, said one, ‘went to the Fickle Fig farm shop and stopped for coffee just like everyone else’.
Some who encountered the couple over the festive season were asked politely by royal protection officers to refrain from spilling the beans on social media for ‘at least for a couple of weeks’ so they could enjoy some peace.
Life passes slowly on Vancouver Island’s Saanich peninsula and it is a testament to the locals’ quiet discretion that they largely complied. ‘In fact, some might say it’s a bit of a miracle,’ said a neighbour. ‘But then we know how to keep a secret around here.’
Lilaberry Home Decor store in Sidney, Vancouver Island
Gradually, the Royal couple became bolder in their forays from their bolthole and went exploring, hiking and jogging. Harry even managed a bit of last-minute Christmas shopping in the nearby town.
All this, though, was before last week’s bombshell dropped, when the couple returned to the UK and made their announcement about their future plans, opening a potentially unbridgeable rift in the Royal Family.
Yesterday, Meghan was back once more in Canada, holed up inside their holiday home and awaiting regular bulletins from her crisis-fighting husband 4,700 miles away – news that will determine their future lives.
It was here in the property’s enormous two-storey living room that they held their council of war over Christmas, finalising their ‘abdication’ plan to effectively quit The Firm, move to North America and become financially independent.
Meghan greets fans on a walkabout in Viaduct Harbour in Auckland
For now, Harry remains across the ocean dealing with the seismic fall-out and negotiating with aides and the rest of the Royal Family over the couple’s future role.
With a ‘packed’ diary and an official engagement at Buckingham Palace on Thursday, he is not expected to return to Canada to be reunited with his wife and eight-month-old son Archie until at least next weekend.
There was a strong sense on the island yesterday that with so much undecided, the freewheeling ease of their six-week sojourn would never be repeated. Stern faced policemen in grey Toyota SUVs went back and forth from the property, lashed over the past 48 hours by high winds and heavy rain.
An elderly woman walking her dogs near the mansion, ringed by a hastily erected 6ft chain-link fence, noted sourly that ‘everything has changed’. As she talked – recalling how a previous house on the site was used as a holiday home by Hollywood stars in the 1950s – a Japanese cameraman got too close to the forbidding iron gates and was shooed away by security men. ‘That’s what I mean,’ she said, gesturing towards them.
Scott Fee, director of local independent TV station CHET News based in the British Columbia capital Victoria, a half-hour drive away, spoke of ‘media from all around the world setting up shop here’.
He said: ‘Victoria has a warm connection to the Monarch but we have already received a backlash, with people telling us to leave them alone. We are going to have to be careful.’
He said he would like to think his station would ‘take a respectful tone’ but added: ‘This is one of the biggest stories happening in the world right now and we are going to have to cover it.’
The region has thrown a protective arm around Harry and Meghan and most people have no wish to criticise them.
Certainly not ardent royalist Chris Stephen, owner of Lilaberry Home Decor – a ‘lifestyle apothecary’ – in the small nearby town of Sidney-by-the-Sea. Harry came into her shop just before Christmas with a protection officer to buy festive table decorations.
*Prince Harry and son Archie pictured during their Christmas holiday in Canada
‘They seemed like two buddies doing a bit of last minute shopping,’ she said. ‘I tried to interest one of them [Harry, it transpired] in a fur scarf and he asked it was real fur. I said there was no way I would sell real fur.’
Harry crammed his blue woollen hat over his eyes and mumbled in ‘a fake Canadian accent’ into the collar of his coat. ‘I thought there was something familiar about him even though I could barely see his face,’ said 60-year-old Mrs Stephen. ‘And then I said, ‘Oh my God, you’re Prince Andrew!’.
‘Norma, who works with me, pointed out that it was Harry and I nearly fainted. I adored his mother and have always followed Harry’s progress and here he was in my store. I think I must have shrieked.’
Announcing that she wanted to give him a ‘motherly hug’, Mrs Stephen, who has three sons, was urged by the detective to ‘please be discreet’. She said: ‘So we went and had a chat in the storeroom and the first thing Harry said to me – looking horrified – was: ‘I can’t believe you thought I was Prince Andrew!’
Shop owner Mrs Stephen mistook Prince Harry for Prince Andrew
‘I told him that I was so overwhelmed I forgot his name. He said he tried to disguise his voice by speaking with a Canadian accent and I told him he made a terrible job of it.
‘In the end I did give him a hug – a big mum hug – and he was very gracious and patient with me, a real well-mannered guy. His security guy then poked his head around the door and said the shop was getting busy.
‘Harry played with my dachshund, Tink, while the guy paid the bill and I gave him a toy otter for Archie. I also invited him to Christmas dinner saying that our place was cosy, not a castle, but he politely declined.
‘This is the best part of Canada and I can see why he and the Duchess like it so much here. I really hope they stay for good. The people here will take them to their hearts and look after them.’
While she regrets not getting a selfie with the Prince, Mrs Stephen did share some stills of the visit from the store’s security camera, a couple of weeks after their encounter. For this she received a social media backlash and was called ‘creepy’ which she said left her ‘really upset.’
Inside the luxury mansion on Vancouver Island where Prince Harry and Meghan Markle were staying
It was a salutary reminder of a toxic world beyond this folksy backwater, where crime is as rare as bad manners.
Across the street, Café Beacon, one of the town’s many coffee shops, is crammed with so much Royal memorabilia that it would seem excessive even for a Windsor tearoom. Shelves are laden with books, pictures, plates, cushions and mugs, much of it commemorating Charles and Diana’s 1981 wedding.
‘We’re still getting over their divorce, never mind this latest fiasco,’ joked 75-year-old Alan Reeve, enjoying tea and scones with his cousin. ‘There’s a strong bond with the Monarchy in these parts.’
Mrs Stephen wasn’t the only one to come up against online trolls. Bev and Pierre Koffel had made headlines for apparently turning down a booking from the Sussexes at their restaurant, Deep Cove Chalet, in North Saanich.
It was said they declined because of the high security the couple’s visit would require, but Mr Koffel insisted this was not the case. ‘I’ve got no idea where that came from,’ he said. ‘Things take a life of their own.’ Since the story went round the globe the Koffels have received hate mail, furious phone calls and inevitable abuse on social media.
The Royal couple have refused to say, meanwhile, if they paid for their six-week mansion stay or even confirm who the property belongs to, raising questions about their wish to become financially independent.