Voyaging the Great Lakes

Picturesque lake towns, historic lighthouses, freshwater dunes — Michigan has it all. One of the best ways to explore this majestic heritage is by cruise ship.
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Vintage Poster of the Great Lakes Cruises Fleet of Ships

When 19th century city-dwellers yearned to flee summer’s noisy heat in the crowded neighborhoods of Detroit, Chicago or Cleveland, they headed for the docks…and sailed into the blue. 

Wooden steamships transported them north to golden beaches, towering dunes and deep, cool forests. At one time, these busy ships — oftentimes loaded as well with commercial goods including coal, wood, grain, iron ore and fruit — rivaled the railroads for both ease and affordability of travel, said Kenneth Pott, executive director of the Tri-Cities Historical Museum in Grand Haven.

Yorktown Cruise
Yorktown Cruise – Photography Courtesy Adventure life

Vintage Poster of Michigan Lake Cruise TransitSuch early voyagers (including a young Ernest Hemingway) built not only vacation traditions, but contributed to the Midwest’s rich nautical heritage by strengthening economic and cultural ties. Passenger steamers enabled vast trade throughout the state and turned it into a hub of many Great Lakes-based industries. 

“Michigan is, without question, the most maritime state in this nation, historically,” Pott noted.

Cruise Ship Sailing into Whitefish Point
Whitefish Point – Photography Courtesy James E. Spurr

But while the region’s shipbuilding, recreational boatbuilding, and commercial shipping industries were larger than those of the eastern and western seaboards combined, the Great Lake State’s shoreline also offered wealth of another kind.

Swept with beautiful landscapes and punctuated by picturesque ports, Michigan’s coastlines beckoned those seeking an extraordinary escape, and cruise ships designed to provide it began their grand leisure runs on the Great Lakes.

Great Lakes Cruises Blue PosterToday, passengers are arriving in Michigan ports by small ship once again, reviving this grand cruising tradition nearly obsolete by the ’50s as more automobiles hit the new highway system and old ships became costly to operate. 

Trends of a New Era

While these modern-day Great Lakes cruisers are seeking a unique, slower-paced journey that incorporates stunning scenery and rich cultural experiences, they also want to revel in the history of those earlier voyagers. So many small-ship cruise packages available today include on-board lectures by experts, guided port town tours and themed programming.

The Great Lakes Cruises Route MapSmall-ship cruising in these freshwater seas also appeals to many travelers because the focus is on destination, which remains intriguing throughout the trip: Great Lakes lines typically dock at a different port every day, allowing passengers to venture ashore for sight-seeing, shopping, hiking or biking, and other personal adventures.

“It’s not like being on a large cruise ship where you’re kind of insulated,” said Jonathan Brunger, operations manager for Montana-based, niche-travel Adventure Life, which has added Great Lakes cruises to base bookings including  Latin America, the Arctic and Alaska. “It’s like a small, mobile ‘boutique hotel,’ and you travel around to see these places. Your experience is off the boat.”

Such trips, which can take seven to 16 days, can range from $2,500 to $9,000 per person, depending on the package. 

Mackinac Island Cruise Ships “We don’t have 3,000 cabins; we don’t have the economies of scale that larger ships do,” explained Chris Conlin, owner and president of Great Lakes Cruise Co., a division of the Ann Arbor-based Conlin Travel. 

While families are welcome on Great Lakes voyages, they are a rarity because they don’t get a discount on rates. Consequently, most passengers are 50 years of age and older, as well as live outside the Midwest — a trend that’s true of the expedition market in general, Brunger noted.

Charting a Niche Course

Inspired by the success of a German-operated cruise on the Great Lakes in 1997, Chris Conlin flew to Germany on a fact-finding mission. Since the traditional cruise industry was already mature with little room for growth, he realized that offering seasonal Great Lakes cruises could be a good way to expand the company’s business.

Blue Voyages Feature Pictured Rocks Upper Peninsula

And it has been. 

These niche cruises, which Great Lakes Cruise Co. has booked since 1999, are designed for “those not wanting a huge crowd — people who are looking for an education, not a tan,” Conlin said. “It’s not meant to be like a Caribbean cruise with big-name acts and shows and casinos. This is a more relaxed adventure.”

Voyagers tend to be veteran world travelers who want to cross something new off their “bucket list,” he said. “They want to see the natural beauty of the Great Lakes.”

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Grand Marais
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Grand Marais

Holding no more than 96 passengers, Blount Small Ship Adventures — which owns and operates the 184-foot Grande Mariner and has offered Great Lakes cruises annually for more than 10 years — provides an informal atmosphere and personalized service while traversing North America’s most scenic rivers and waterways. 

“People are drawn to Lake Michigan — that one just seems to catch everyone’s eye,” said Esther Pato, Blount’s reservations manager.

Grande Mariner Navy Pier Chicago

Blount’s Grande Mariner, which was built in Rhode Island in 1998 and refurbished in 2010, has 48 cabins for 96 passengers. Like the Yorktown, it flies a U.S. flag. Its itineraries this summer will include the 16-day voyage, “Great American Waterways,” which begins in Chicago. The ship will sail to Manistee, Wyandotte, Cleveland and Rochester, New York, among other towns, before heading for its last port of call in Warren, Rhode Island. 

The Grande Mariner’s itineraries include four voyages here this season. But since many passengers have a “checklist” of all of the Great Lakes, Blount is adding a Lake Superior trip from Chicago to Duluth, Minn., next summer. 

Grande Mariner Cabin 2
Photography Courtesy Blount Small Ship Adventures

Depending on the cruise, the ships might dock at towns such as Saugatuck, Marquette, Whitefish Point, Manitoulin Island or Sheboygan, Wis. Small ports tend to be less crowded, easily accessible to visitors and yet “not that touristy,” Pato said, adding that passengers love the chance to “see places that are still quaint.”

Grande Mariner Cabin 4But these travelers also enjoy the voyage of discovery. That’s why New York-based Travel Dynamics International, which owns and operates the Yorktown, designs all of its itineraries with an educational element (traveldynamicsinternational.com). A variety of experts — including historians, biologists, geologists, artists, and engineers — present lectures on the ship in the evenings, said business development manager Dale Woods. Topics focus on the region’s unique history, culture and geography. One theme for a few select trips this season will be the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812. 

Great Lakes Cruise Co. cruises used to depart from Windsor, Ontario, Conlin said. But the new Port of Detroit, located next to the Renaissance Center on the Detroit River, could propel the inland lakes cruise industry forward in the next few years. Conlin believes the port’s development, which he calls the best on the Great Lakes, will help attract other cruise ship owners to the Motor City.

He also expects the Great Lakes cruise industry overall to keep growing in the next decade. As the economy improves, there will be more opportunities for other companies and ships to enter the market. “The cruise world,” Conlin said, “can only grow in the Great Lakes.”

To learn more, visit adventurelife.com;

greatlakescruising.com; and blountsmallshipadventures.com.

Freelance writer Stefanie Scarlett is a Michigan native now residing in Indiana. – Michigan BLUE Magazine.


Great Lakes Grand Discovery Aboard the Yorktown 

The Yorktown, which was built in Florida in 1988 and refurbished in 2009, will make its first Great Lakes voyage this summer. The ship has 69 exterior cabins and plenty of deck space for optimal scenery viewing. It will be one of three small ships on the Great Lakes this season. 

“There have been as many as seven in a summer,” noted Chris Conlin of the Great Lakes Cruise Company. “It just depends on a ship’s availability. Most keep sailing year-round, in various regions around the world, because it’s too expensive to dock for a long period of time.”

A Voyage from Lake St. Clair to Lake Superior:

Day 1: Detroit, Michigan/Embark
Day 2: Goderich, Bayfield, Stratford; Ontario
Day 3: Little Current, Manitoulin Island; Lake Huron
Day 4: Soo Locks, Whitefish Point, Lake Superior
Day 5: Mackinac Island
Day 6: Sheboygan, Wisconsin
Day 7: Holland, Saugatuck; Lake Michigan
Day 8: Chicago, Illinois/Disembark

2012 Cruise Dates: June 16 to 23; June 23 to 30; June 30 to July 7; July 7 to 14; July 14 to 21; Aug. 11 to 18; and Aug. 18 to 25.

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