November 09, 2009 12:00 PM

The last time Jason Mesnick and Molly Malaney visited Queenstown, New Zealand, things didn’t go so well. Last November Malaney, one of two finalists vying for Mesnick’s affection on The Bachelor, was expecting him to pop the question, but he sent her packing and instead gave a ring to Melissa Rycroft. What a difference a year makes. The reunited couple found themselves back in the idyllic setting that Mesnick calls “by far my favorite place,” and Malaney finally got her engagement ring when he proposed on Oct. 21. “It was perfect,” recalls Malaney. “It was just the two of us there—no cameras around.”

It was a year-delayed happy ending for the couple, who had reconciled after Mesnick, 33, infamously dumped Rycroft on March’s After the Final Rose special and minutes later declared his love for Malaney, 25. (The breakup “has been a blessing in disguise,” Rycroft—who has since gotten engaged and will marry this winter—tells PEOPLE. “The rough times make you appreciate the good ones that much more.”) While doubters questioned Mesnick’s sincerity, the couple have proved them wrong. “Once the drama died down and we were able to focus on each other,” says Malaney, “that’s when I knew: This is who I want to spend the rest of my life with.” Last month she packed up her belongings in Milwaukee and moved into Mesnick’s three-bedroom home in suburban Seattle. Two weeks later they hosted Air New Zealand’s Matchmaking Flight, where 100 singles looking for love flew from Los Angeles to Auckland. The trip’s romantic vibe inspired Mesnick to pop the question in the same Queenstown home where they had a special Bachelor date. “I wish everyone could see,” he says, “how beautiful this place is.”

Despite returning to the location of last year’s emotional trauma, Malaney says the day was magical. “The house is where we had our first big moment saying ‘I love you,’ so I was really excited to go back,” she says. When she went off to get a manicure (“I had her strategically getting her nails done,” Mesnick boasts), he called her parents, Mike and Maryann, in Grand Rapids, Mich., to get their blessing. Then, with the diamond and platinum ring—designed by a Seattle jeweler pal—in his pocket, Mesnick reunited with his girlfriend to enjoy a bottle of champagne.

“He was like, ‘Do you want to take a picture and have a toast? It will be funny, like we’re back on The Bachelor,'” Malaney recalls. Setting the timer on her digital camera, she and Mesnick said that “when it goes off we’ll take a drink. It goes off—and the ring’s at the bottom of my glass!” Then, a teary-eyed Mesnick dropped down on one knee in front of a “shaking” Malaney and proposed. “I was shocked,” she says, “because he plans nothing!”

She said yes, but for Mesnick, the best part of all was keeping everything under wraps. “I was playing ‘dumb guy’ for a long time with Molly, trying to figure out what kind of ring she would like, because I wanted her to think it wasn’t going to be for a long time,” Mesnick says. “Everyone is so excited.” And overwhelmed: “It’s been a chaotic month with moving to Seattle and coming to New Zealand,” Malaney says. “And now, I guess, planning a wedding!”

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