Somehow it seems quite normal to have the second in line to the throne walking through the rain with no tie and no umbrella in a pretend West Coast town from the goldrush days.

And because this is Prince William visiting, it also seems normal to have a media contingent parked here at Shantytown, a Greymouth tourist attraction which closed early so the Prince could come in relative privacy to sit with the families of the 29 men killed in the Pike River mine tragedy and offer his heartfelt sympathy.

As Grey District Mayor Tony Kokshoorn said several times during the visit, William knows tragedy from the 1997 death of his mother, Princess Diana, and he has inherited her compassion.

A clearly chuffed Mr Kokshoorn also added that William and his bride-to-be, Kate Middleton, make a great couple.

More than 150 Pike River relatives turned out in pouring rain to meet the Prince. Among them was Jade Marden, 3 - son of lost miner Francis Marden - kitted out in a shirt and tie.

William stood silently during the praise as Mr Kokshoorn introduced him to families, then the media were ushered out and the Prince shook hands and sat down with groups of families to give them his full attention.

Bernie Monk, spokesman for the families, said William spent time with each and every person in the room, including the children.

"It was just amazing. We are very humbled by his caring for the families. They just got such a buzz out of it."

Mr Monk, whose son Michael died in the mine, said William answered all the family members' questions.

"And he had real in-depth and down-to-Earth conversations with everyone. He spoke to the kids in their lingo, asking them about their PlayStations. It was quite touching how he was prepared to take photos. He gave his heart to the families. We are blown away by his generosity."

A photographer took photos of the Prince with the families and will send them copies.

Mr Monk said he chatted with William about his stag night - which the Prince later told the media "may or may not have happened".

"Being a rugby fanatic," Mr Monk said, "I asked him who he thought would win the Rugby World Cup. He said, 'I'll probably get my throat cut when I get home', but announced he thought the All Blacks would win.

"My kids told him that because of the Christchurch earthquake, their invites to his wedding must have been lost in the mail ... He laughed. He has a great sense of humour."

Mr Monk said the Prince really felt for the families. "He knows what we are going through. An event like this brings our families together. It was a bonding thing for us."

Outside, other guests, invited to meet the Prince after the families, began arriving in the lashing rain. They included Pike River Coal CEO Peter Whittall and Tasman District police commander Superintendent Gary Knowles, who became the public faces of the initial attempt to rescue the trapped miners.

Mr Knowles was impressed William had taken the time to visit the West Coast. He said the trip would make a big difference to the families.

Even though the mine was in the hands of receivers, he said, police were still ready at any time of the night or day to go in for the miners. "The world goes on, but people here can't. Not until they get their people back."

Others were touched, too. Robin Kingston, the vicar who held so many services at the Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Greymouth after the tragedy in November, said it was terrific the Prince was spending quality time with the families.

"For a man who has travelled 25 hours [from Britain] then to sit down and do all this sort of work, we're just amazed, and it says something about his quality and his character."

Mr Kingston, too, pointed out that William had gone through terrible trauma when his mother was killed in a road crash and the Prince had endured the full assault of publicity.

"He's got a pretty shrewd idea of what the families are going through."

As the Prince chatted inside, his press secretary, Miguel Head - outside in the rain - said William had asked if he could come to NZ as soon as he heard about Christchurch.

"The morning after the earthquake - the morning for us - when we woke up and heard about it, he was straight on the phone to the private secretary."