An unmissable opportunity for exploration off the beaten track

Cruising in the Great Lakes gives experienced passengers a mix of ocean travel and river boating

An unmissable opportunity for exploration off the beaten track
Pearl Seas Cruises’ Pearl Mist docked in Milwaukee, Wisconsin

By Elly Yates-Roberts |

The Great Lakes of North America are the largest group of freshwater lakes in the world. The rivers and channels that connect them extend 3,700 kilometres inland from the Gulf of St. Lawrence in eastern Canada, to Duluth, Minnesota, on the western end of Lake Superior, creating an unmissable opportunity for cruise operators and their passengers.  

“Approximately one third of the cruise vessels being built today will carry fewer than 400 passengers,” says Kate Ferguson, the newly elected chairwoman of the US Great Lakes Cruising Coalition (GLCC). “These small ships will offer guests a more intimate and off-the-beaten-path experience, perfect for sailing through the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway System.” 

The miles of rivers, lakes and channels make the Great Lakes a cruising destination that perfectly strikes the balance between ocean travel and riverboating, with ports of call available in the eight neighbouring states of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin and Minnesota, and the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec. 

These ports are improving and expanding their dock space and accommodation for cruise ships. For example, the port of Cleveland, Ohio, invested in a new passenger clearance facility and Duluth, Minnesota, recently broke ground on another new facility. These locations will enable cruise lines to return to the US on Lake Erie and Superior. On Lake Michigan, the ports of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Muskegon, Michigan, are also building new docks for larger expedition-type cruise ships. 

Due to the location of the Great Lakes and the vast area that they cover, there are a diverse range of shore excursions for cruise guests to indulge in, covering local history, art, architecture and native culture.    

Travellers can disembark on Mackinac Island for horse and carriage rides, or visit Green Bay, Wisconsin, to tour the American football team Green Bay Packers’ Hall of Fame and National Railroad Museum. Guests can also explore the Victorian homes and art museums of Muskegon, the gourmet cuisines of Milwaukee’s beer city food markets and tour the renowned Harley Davidson Museum. The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland is also a must-see, as well as the famous, historic Henry Ford Museum in Detroit, Michigan. Visitors can enjoy a stroll down Duluth’s Lakewalk, a promenade through the waterfront area past shops and restaurants, or take in the Great Lakes Aquarium.  

“Each arrival is celebrated,” says Ferguson. “The ports host musical performances and presentations of city keys. For the duration of their stay, passengers become part of the community, discovering its character and heritage.  

“Cruise guests who choose to explore North America’s Great Lakes are experienced – many having sailed in the Caribbean, Mediterranean, Northern Europe, Alaska, Australia and South America. They want something new and different, and we can give that to them.” 

The US GLCC – members of which include US ports, vessel agencies, tourism entities and Seaway authorities – is working to continue highlighting the opportunities of cruising in the Great Lakes. It provides cruise lines, shipowners, operators and itinerary planners with a wealth of information around the available destinations, lock transit requirements, port operations and facilitation support with federal agencies such as US Coast Guard and US Customs and Border Protection. 

Each spring, the GLCC leads a binational delegation of Great Lakes ports, tourism bureaus and ship agents to Seatrade Cruise Global in Miami, Florida. The exhibition gives cruise ship owners, operators and itinerary planners the opportunity to explore the Great Lakes and what it has to offer cruise guests. “Through our visual aids, we can tell the story that represents Great Lakes cruising,” says Ferguson. “Several of the current cruise operators were identified during Seatrade.” 

Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, Canada closed its borders. As the world begins to slowly resume cruising, the GLCC is hopeful for what the reopening of Canada’s borders will mean. “The Passenger Vessel Service Act of 1886 requires foreign flag cruise ship operating in US ports to visit a foreign port during its itinerary,” says Ferguson. “With 90 per cent of the cruise ships operating in the Great Lakes being foreign flagged, Canada is vital to our industry.” 

As the GLCC prepares for the year ahead, the 2022 cruise calendar looks promising for the Great Lakes. Between May and October, eight cruise ships will sail its waters: American Queen Voyages’ Ocean Voyager and Ocean Navigator, Pearl Seas Cruises’ Pearl Mist, Ponant’s Le Dumont-d’Urville and Le Ballot, Viking Expeditions’ Viking Octantis, Vantage Travel’s Ocean Explorer and St. Lawrence Cruise Line’s Canadian Empress.

This article was first published in the Spring/Summer 2022 issue of Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed. 

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