Savvy Midwestern travelers who have for years cruised the world’s most exotic locales increasingly are turning to their own neighborhood, so to speak, for a luxury tour by water. A growing number live close enough to drive to their departure ports. And what they’re experiencing in a growing number of Great Lakes cruises is something wholly different from the way they’ve traveled before to even popular tourist destinations like Holland, Sault Ste. Marie, Detroit and Mackinac Island, says Michigan-based maritime historian Frederick Stonehouse.
Secure a cabin on the elegant, traditional cruise liner Pearl Mist or the MV Victory 1 with its elegant look that replicates a coastal steamer, and you’ll be treated to Stonehouse’s and others’ interpretations of life on the lakes, past and present. A Motown tribute band might follow a port outing to Detroit’s Motown Museum, while a lecturer offers context to the views off luxurious decks.
“We literally follow the tracks of the old fur voyageurs, fur traders, explorers,” Stonehouse says. “You’re seeing the same terrain features they would have seen, only in far more comfort. There’s nothing wrong with having a good glass of wine in your hand as you’re making your approach.”
“Our ship is the hotel, but the real product is the Great Lakes themselves and the towns.”
— Bruce Nirenberg
For the 2017 May to October cruise season, seven vessels will sail the Great Lakes on a collective 107 voyages, making 900 stops at ports of call, says Stephen Burnett, executive director of the Great Lakes Cruising Coalition (bit.ly/greatlakescruises).
“That’s a significant amount, but a fraction of what we should be able to do in the future,” he said. “I’ve identified about 65 ships that can get through the St. Lawrence Seaway and cruise the Great Lakes.”
The potential for cruising in the Great Lakes is tremendous, and challenges — federal regulations on border stops, docking and port infrastructure needs — are big as well, says Travel Michigan Vice President Dave Lorenz.
“When you look at ports like Detroit, Muskegon, Holland, the Soo, they have really figured out how to do this well,” Lorenz said. “They make guests feel welcome and give them a great experience, and there will be a good percentage of those people who’ll come back on their own once they’ve gotten a sample of these communities. That’s how it works.”
Spurring the growth of Great Lakes cruises, ironically, is the opening of Cuba to U.S. tourism. Cruise lines that go to the expense of moving ships from European ports can double up, cruising the Great Lakes in the summer and Cuba in the winter. General traveler unease about traveling far from home also has been a boon for the Great Lakes with its almost village-like ports of Mackinac Island, Holland, Michigan and Canada’s Manitoulin Island. At the same time, experienced cruise passengers are looking for something new — and boutique — and they find that on these itineraries where ships are limited by geography and lock dimensions to around 200 passengers.
But “boutique” also means pricey. Blount Small Ship Adventures’ seven-night “Magical Lake Michigan Cruise” starts at $1,999. Sail on a 10-day August trip on the resort-style Pearl Mist, and rates run from $7,790 to $10,640. Liberty’s Great Lakes, Grand Discovery trips range from around $6,000 to $9,000. They take passengers from Chicago to Toronto (or vice versa) with port stops on Mackinac Island that include lunch at the Grand Hotel, Sault Ste. Marie, Little Current in Georgian Bay, Detroit, Cleveland and Niagara Falls.
Some trips already are sold out, and Victory Cruise Lines President and CEO Bruce Nirenberg expects they all eventually will be sold out to passengers who enjoy on-board amenities like high tea in the style of teas in “London, Vienna or India,” pre-dinner cocktail parties and some port experience surprises.
“There’s going to continue to be the desire of mature or experienced customers to go on something closer to home,” he said, “and we run a first-class operation with a lot of personal service and really good food. Our ship is the hotel, but the real product is the Great Lakes themselves and the towns…”
Kim Schneider is an award-winning travel writer who has visited nearly every corner of Michigan.