The broken city of Christchurch was clearly glowing under the gaze of charming Prince William, who flew into the devastated New Zealand city filled with kind words, warm gestures and the promise of much-needed cash.
What he saw on the ground shocked the sombre-faced royal, who grew fond of the so-called Garden City during an extended stay for the Lions rugby tour in 2005.
“The scale of it is unbelievable,” the second-in-line to the British throne said as he walked past crumpled buildings, flattened cars, gouged footpaths and huge piles of rubble in the city’s unstable “red zone”.
“It’s really brought it home for me.” The latest toll estimates 182 died when the 6.3-magnitude earthquake struck on February 22. Crews are still working to identify victims from human remains.
Prince William, who is making the trip to disaster-hit areas in New Zealand and Australia without fiancee Catherine Middleton, has pledged a donation from his April 29 wedding to the Christchurch Earthquake Fund.
With an estimated $NZ15 billion ($A11.05 billion) in damage, such generosity is dearly needed.
But beyond the financial boost, the royal clearly saw his visit as an opportunity to lift spirits too.
He had many kind words for tireless rescue workers, thanking them for the “wonderful work you are all doing”.
He admitted to one that, as a military man, he wished he could have been there to help in the days after the disaster.
“There were a lot of us who work in the military (who) were gnashing their teeth to come out here,” said the prince, who asked questions and listened intently.
The prince also clearly was thrilled to meet a fellow helicopter pilot and talk flight logistics.
“He is the one person we can’t bullshit,” the chuffed pilot said afterwards.
Prince William stopped to admire the craftsmanship of Australian workers who used their off-duty time to create a park bench from wood found in the rubble of the city’s badly damaged cathedral.
A crowd of 150 gathered at the airport to see the prince arrive, one woman handing him her baby for a photo opportunity.
A boy of about six yelled out: “I love Prince William”, while another woman shouted: “Thanks for coming to our city”.
Royalists and republicans alike approved of the visit, with one man, John Hancock, saying: “I’m not into the royals but at a time like this a visit like this works wonders for the soul”.
Steve Barclay, who heads the rescue teams, spoke to the prince and said “it was a great morale boost” to the city. “It’s not purely symbolic.
We had Russell Crowe here the other day and we had (New Zealand Prime Minister) John Key and having the prince come all this way to acknowledge our problems is a real morale booster, and we really appreciate it,” he said.
Prince William’s tour extended to a trip to Greymouth, on the other side of the South Island, to visit the families of the 29 men who died in a series of explosions at the Pike River mine last November.
Families, still clearly in grief at their loss, appeared thankful for the prince’s attention.
Mr Key thanked Prince William for making the trip to a country having “a really terrible time”.
The commemorations will continue on Friday, when tens of thousands of Christchurch residents are expected to gather for a national memorial to remember the dead.
The prince will address the service, to be attended by Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott and Governor-General Quentin Bryce.
William flies to Australia on Saturday morning to start a tour of cyclone-hit areas of Queensland and flood-damaged districts of northwestern Victoria.