Maybe it takes a stranger to get you to appreciate what you have.
“Great Lakes — The Sea in the Wilderness” Hapag-Lloyd cruises promise.
“A freshwater treasure trove of wild islands, unusual geology and legendary waterfalls,” touts Smithsonian Journeys.
Are they really talking about us? Michiganders take for granted their ability to visit the Great Lakes whenever they want to, but face it — few of us have ever spent two weeks cruising the big lakes. Most of us have never seen the obscure reaches of Georgian Bay. We’ve never crossed Lake Superior. We’ve never seen the stars from the middle of Lake Michigan.
But this is the year. With Great Lakes cruises red-hot and 11 ships offering multiple cruises, you, too, can join the trend. So start planning now.
“This is for folks who … want to see something different,” says Mark Schrupp, executive director of the Detroit/Wayne County Port Authority. “You can go to the Caribbean and find a cruise for half the cost, with 5,000 people aboard. But this is new.”
If you’re considering a Great Lakes cruise, know that each cruise line has a slightly different vibe. Viking Cruises, American Queen Voyages, Vantage Travel, and Pearl Seas Cruises entice affluent travelers from North America. Fares start at about $5,000 per person but can easily top $10,000.
Why so pricey? Michiganders might find this hard to believe, but many Great Lakes cruises are marketed in the same way that Antarctica is — as a thrilling upscale “expedition” cruise focused on science and history.
“A unique way we deliver exploring the world’s greatest natural resource is through our dedicated ‘Lakelorian’ program … lectures by a well-versed Lake Michigan expert,” says Cindy D’Aoust, president of American Queen Voyages. Stories of voyageurs, the Ojibwe people, explorers, eagles, and glaciers all weave a glorious tale of the past.
Viking even has a submarine that takes passengers down into the lakes.
Pearl Seas Cruises’ focus is slightly different, spokeswoman Alexa Paolella says.
“Ours is a small-ship-style, destination-focused cruise with people who are culturally curious, much like a river cruise,” she says. And the Great Lakes have more than nature; they have lively cities like Toronto, Cleveland, and Detroit.
Pearl Seas has been in the market since 2014 but welcomes the new competition. “We think it’s good for everyone,” Paolella says. “The Great Lakes is a big, wonderful, dynamic place and, as they say, a rising tide lifts all boats.”
Several developments have made Great Lakes cruising a post-pandemic success. The biggest splash is from Viking. In its second season here, it has two ships: Polaris and Octantis. At 665 feet long, they dwarf competitors and bring cachet to the market.
Second, some sources say customs procedures have been streamlined as ships travel between U.S. and Canadian ports. That means less red tape for passengers.
Third, shore excursions are getting more creative. In Alpena, Viking partners with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL), so stops include ecosystem research along with shipwreck kayaking and museum tours. In Detroit, more cruise lines allow passengers to explore the Riverwalk or local restaurants, in addition to visiting the Motown Museum, the Henry Ford, and more.
Every cruise on the Great Lakes in 2023 will stop at Michigan ports. Many will stop in Detroit, including Viking’s Great Lakes Collection, Niagara & the Great Lakes, Longitudinal World Cruise I, and Longitudinal World Cruise III itineraries.
“We’re super excited. We’re going to see 52 port arrivals and the potential of more than 10,000 cruise passengers in Detroit this year,” says Jennifer Ollinger, domestic and international tourism manager at Visit Detroit. “I remember back in 2005 or 2006, a cruise ship stopped here and we thought, hey, we’ve made it. Now, to have ships docked here 56 times is amazing.”
An estimated 170,000 people will visit Great Lakes cruise ports this year, predicts Cruise the Great Lakes, a coalition of states, provinces, and providers. That’s up 15 percent from 2022. Last year, cruising had an estimated regional impact of $125 million.
Schrupp says this is the biggest era for cruising in the Great Lakes since the mid-20th century.
“From the late 1800s to the 1960s there were a number of shipping companies that took people all the way from Detroit to Traverse City, and some of it was luxurious,” he says.
Now, that luxury is back. And you have a chance to experience it firsthand.
A Look at the Ships
Great Lakes cruise ships vary in size and ambience. The largest ships must tender passengers to shore. Viking’s ships are nearly three times the length of American Queen vessels.
Viking Octantis and Polaris
Polaris is new to the Great Lakes this year (665 feet long, 378 guests).
Pearl Seas Pearl Mist
A longtime player, this ship features a complete renovation of interior space (325 feet long, 210 guests).
Plantours MS Hamburg
A German ship catering to German tourists; formerly named MS Columbus (472 feet long, 420 guests).
Ponant Le Bellot and Le Dumont d’Urville
Elegant French ambience; partners with the Smithsonian and Tauck on English-speaking cruises (430 feet long, 184 guests).
American Queen Ocean Navigator and Ocean Voyager
The smallest and most homey ships (286 feet long, 202 guests).
Vantage Travel Ocean Explorer
This two-year-old ship features 15 cabins for solo travelers (341 feet long, 162 guests).
Hapag-Lloyd Hanseatic Inspiration
Commissioned in 2019, this German ship has a bilingual crew. It’s new to the Great Lakes (452 feet long, 230 guests).
Great Lakes Cruising Q&A
Q: Can I join a cruise when it stops in Detroit?
A: Unfortunately, no. Most embark from Toronto, Milwaukee, or Duluth, Minn., or other cities.
Q: What do cruises cost?
A: Compared to a Caribbean cruise, a lot. Plan on about $7,000 per person for an eight-day cruise. Some cruises for 2024 are still showing prices of about $4,300 on American Queen. Price no object? The owner’s suite on Viking’s 15-day Great Lakes Collection cruises is $39,995.
Q: Do all cruises stop in both the U.S. and Canada?
Q: What months do the ships sail?
A: May through October.
Q: Where are the Michigan ports?
A: Mackinac Island and Sault Ste. Marie, of course, but also Detroit, Alpena, Muskegon, Traverse City, Marquette, and even smaller towns such as Escanaba.
Q: Do all cruises make the same journey?
A: No. The basic theme is the same — a combination of Canadian and American ports, cities, and remote areas — but each line has an extra twist. There also are numerous shore excursions available on most cruises, so passengers can get out and enjoy activities around the ports.
Q: Do all cruises visit all five Great Lakes?
A: No. Some cruises skip Lake Superior.
Q: Are all the cruises seven days?
A: No. Some are 13-15 days.
Q: Can I book a Great Lakes cruise through a tour operator?
A: Yes. Try AAA Travel, Tauck, Smithsonian Journeys, Vantage, or Great Lakes Cruising in Ann Arbor (greatlakescruising.com).
Q: Will we ever see Caribbean-sized cruise ships in the
A: No. Great Lakes cruise ships spend Michigan’s winter in warmer climes or Antarctica. They must be narrow and short enough to transit the Welland Canal, for example, linking Lakes Erie and Ontario. Viking’s Octantis last year was the largest passenger vessel ever to transit the canal. Its width barely fit.
Here are five Great Lakes cruises for 2023. Check websites for current sail dates and prices.
Niagara and the Great Lakes
Great Lakes Explorer
Round Trip Chicago
Great Lakes of North America
Milwaukee to Windsor