As the royal couple's nine-day visit to Canada winds down, Prince William praised the country, saying it had exceeded his expectations, and pledged that he and Kate would return.

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge donned their best country garb, including jeans and white cowboy hats, as they arrived for the opening of the Calgary Stampede.

William said that a week ago he had spoken of how much he and Kate had looked forward to getting to know Canada and Canadians.

"I can only say that the experience of this past seven days has exceeded all our expectations. We have been hugely struck by the diversity of this beautiful country, from Ottawa to Quebec, from Prince Edward Island to the Northwest Territories and now the excitement of Calgary," William said.

"And what about these fantastic white hats?"

He said that Canada has "far surpassed all that we were promised. Our promise to Canada is that we shall return."

The royal couple arrived by stagecoach to a cheering crowd at the BMO Centre for the event hosted by the government of Canada.

Their new "westernized" get-up included a plaid green, button-up shirt for William and a white western top for Kate.

Greeted by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his wife Laureen, who were also decked out in cowboy hats and western attire, the royal couple were shown how to load a chuckwagon. William briefly took the reins of the horses as he was shown how to drive the chuckwagon.

They also watched a bull riding demonstration, with William climbing up on a fence to help hold the bull rope for the rider.

Inside the BMO Centre, Harper thanked the couple for helping to celebrate Canada Day on Parliament Hll, saying there hadn't been a love-in like that since the first visit of the Beatles.

"Indeed everywhere you went, you left a trail of utterly charmed Canadians in your wake," Harper said.

As a gift to the couple, Harper announced the creation in their honour of the Parks Canada Youth Ambassadors Program, which will see two young Canadians chosen every summer to travel the country visiting national parks and historic sites.

Earlier,  William had arrived in Calgary on Thursday afternoon for a "white hat" ceremony officially welcoming them to the city.

The couple arrived at Calgary International Airport at 4:55 p.m. MT from Lake Louise, having spent the night at a remote backcountry cabin in Banff National Park.

The welcoming line of dignitaries included Alberta Lt.-Gov. Donald Ethell, Premier Ed Stelmach and Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi.

About 150 people gathered outside the airport to catch a glimpse of the pair, many yeehawing in celebration.

William and Kate received Calgary's version of a crowning when Nenshi presented them with white cowboy hats at their official welcome to the city. Previous participants in the Calgary tradition include former U.S. president George W. Bush, the Dalai Lama and actor William Shatner.

But in what some commentators saw as a disappointment, the pair did not don the hats. Bookmakers had been taking bets on whether they would.  

mi-royals-calgary-hats-cp

William and Kate accepted a pair of white cowboy hats from Mayor Naheed Nenshi, right, upon arrival at Calgary airport, with Lt.-Gov. Donald Ethell watching, but they did not don them until later. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

"They're getting our best white one that we have," said Bryce Nimmo, president of Calgary's Smithbilt Hats. "It's actually a rabbit fur, European hare," he said of the headgear, which is cut and shaped to regal perfection.

William and Kate received a warm welcome in Calgary, where thousands lined up overnight earlier this week to obtain wristbands that will offer an opportunity to see the couple in person, either at the Stampede grounds Thursday evening, or at Challenger Rotary Park in northeast Calgary on Friday before the couple depart for the United States.

Mayor Nenshi defended the city's decision to only allow people with the free wristbands to get up close to the royal visitors at the public events.

"Rather than have a crush of people, we thought the fairest way to do it was to hand out these free wristbands so that people know in advance if they're going to have a chance to get in."

Advertisements started appearing on the website Kijiji late Wednesday morning from people trying to sell the wristbands. One vendor was asking $1,000 for a blue wristband, which grants access to the BMO Centre event.

From the airport, the royal motorcade headed to the University of Calgary for a presentation at the Ward of the 21st Century Research and Innovation Centre. The tour included a demonstration of a robot doll named Stan that simulates illnesses for medical students learning how to diagnose and treat patients, and the unveiling of a plaque commemorating William and Kate's visit. They then headed straight into their limousine without shaking hands or greeting any of the dozens of people who showed up to see and cheer them.

mi-calgary-airport-royal-fa

People wait at Calgary airport to catch a glimpse of the royal couple before their arrival their Thursday. ((CBC))

Some members of the public who got wristbands to be in the crowd outside the event started lining up 10 hours ahead of time, and others were angered when people began butting in line. There was also some confusion about where people should stand to get the best view, and whether they would have a chance to speak with Will and Kate or just see them walk by.

Country musician Paul Brandt was to perform at the dinner, and he told CBC News he's received a song request.

"It's a song that I wrote called Alberta Bound, and it's all about the things that I love about Alberta, all of those iconic things like the mountains and the black soil," Brandt said.

On Friday morning, William and Kate are scheduled to ride a section of the Calgary Stampede parade in reverse before the actual parade begins. Stampede participants were also preparing for the royal couple to take in demonstrations of chuckwagon riding and bull riding.

The visit to the Stampede has aroused controversy among animal rights activists, with the group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals urging the pair to boycott the annual festival because, the organization says, some events involve cruel treatment of horses — six of which died last year at the Stampede — and bulls. Bull riding is also banned in Britain.

'Off the grid,' on retreat

On Thursday, officials confirmed that William and Kate had spent the night at Skoki Lodge, a remote, rustic resort high above Lake Louise.

Known for its majestic vistas, the resort is an 11-kilometre hike — or helicopter ride, as the royals reportedly did it — through the Rocky Mountains.

The lodge has no electricity or running water. However, it was reported that one cabin was retrofitted just for the royal couple, with a full bathroom flown to the location in two separate parts.

Technically, it's William and Kate's second time in Calgary on their tour. They arrived briefly in the city Wednesday following their visit to the fire-ravaged town of Slave Lake in northern Alberta, but soon headed west toward the mountains.

Their itinerary said they were "off the grid," taking a retreat after a hectic schedule since their arrival in Ottawa June 30.

Wednesday had originally been scheduled as a rest day, but the couple chose instead to visit Slave Lake and help lift the spirits of the damaged community.

Slave Lake Mayor Karina Pillay-Kinnee showed the couple the devastating results of the mid-May wildfires.

"They were very concerned, very caring. Just wanted to reach out to the people of Slave Lake and we are just so grateful for them for taking the time out of their day off to come touch our community," she said.

The final two events of the royal tour are a late-morning visit on Friday to the ENMAX Conservatory at the Calgary Zoo for a presentation on Alberta research and development in science and technology.

The royal couple then depart for Los Angeles following a midday ceremony with full military honours, including a 21-gun salute and an inspection of the guard of honour by Prince William.

Attending the ceremony will be Gov. Gen. David Johnston, the prime minister, Lt.-Gov. Ethell and Premier Stelmach.

With files from The Canadian Press