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Slideshow: Viking River Highclere Castle/Downton Abbey Tour

Few haven't heard of the latest PBS Masterpiece blockbuster "Downton Abbey," the imported-from-Britain upstairs/downstairs-themed drama series focusing on the turn-of-last-century Crawley family.

"Downton Abbey's" biggest star, incidentally, isn't family members like patriarch Lord Grantham or feisty grandmum Dame Maggie Smith. The star of the series, which begins its third season on PBS on January 6, is -- according to Hugh Bonneville, the actor who plays Lord Grantham -- the castle, known in real life as Highclere. "It's the center of the whole show around which everyone revolves," he said in a recent television interview.

And coming in 2014, one cruise line has organized an exclusive and intimate tour for its passengers. Viking River Cruises', a national sponsor of Masterpiece, will include a half-day guided tour of the 200-plus room Highclere Castle, situated on 1,000 beautifully rolling acres in England's Hampshire, as part of a new Oxford-based pre- and post-cruise tour option for its Seine River cruises. Now, mind you: Highclere Castle is open to the public now and again, but what's different about Viking's tour is its exclusive and private access, and the chance to enjoy it as a house, as opposed to the museum-like experience that's geared to the general public.

We got a sneak preview of Viking's tour when Highclere Castle graciously opened its massive doors to Cruise Critic. Here's what we discovered.

--by Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief


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