Highclere Castlegives Viking guests privileged access. // © 2013 Highclere Castle
With all the attention on Viking River Cruises’ new hardware, the company is putting just as strong an emphasis on the guests’ experience onshore, developing more and more excursions that give passengers privileged access to the people and cultures along the rivers of the world.
“Privileged Access is access to people as well as destinations,” Karine Hagen pointed out. Karine, daughter of chairman and CEO Torstein Hagen and the face of Viking River Cruises, has been able to build relationships that allow Viking’s guests to connect deeply with various regions and their people.
One such experience is a visit to Lord and Lady Carnarvon at the real Downton Abbey, Highclere Castle, outside of London. On French itineraries guests are able to visit the castle after hours and meet the owners and see their magnificent home, complete with extraordinary Egyptian art acquired when the former Lord Carnarvon wintered in Egypt for his health and ended up financing Howard Carter in his excavations culminating in the discovery of the Tomb of King Tutankhamun. Guests also can enjoy the thousand acres of surrounding parkland and, if they are lucky, meet the golden Labrador retrievers bred by the owners.
In Prague, there is the opportunity to explore the beautiful palace of the Lobkovicz family, who lost the property and regained it twice during the 20th century — once under the Nazis and once to the communists. Much of the amazing 5th-century art collection has slowly been found and restored, along with handwritten music dedicated to the prince who was Beethoven’s patron, and passengers conclude their exclusive tour with an elegant lunch and concert in the palace.
Viking receives its highest ratings in China, and guests constantly praise the experience, which includes places that are not on the standard list of must-sees. Viking sponsors three schools along the Yangtze, and guests rank their visits to the children, who practice their English on them, among their most memorable travel experience.
“There are now 5,000 children who are getting an education, thanks, to our guests,” Hagen said.
The Viking difference on shore is conveyed by short videos, such as one in which Hagen goes under the Hermitage to introduce the nearly 100 guardian cats who have lived there for hundreds of years, keeping the fabulous art collection safe from rodents. The basement and courtyard of the Hermitage even have a cat hospital and extensive records on diet and medications for the feline residents.
Viking is currently working with Celia Sandys, Winston Churchill’s much-loved granddaughter, to plan ways for her to share her 21 years with the celebrated British leader. Sandys, who has written five books about Churchill, including one that became a three-part television series, traveled extensively with him and is eloquent in sharing her vivid recollections; she will offer privileged access to Viking guests “sooner rather than later,” according to Hagen.