Five Great Lakes, one grand cruise adventure

The immense Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway System offers pristine natural beauty, exciting entertainment options and a Midwestern charm. Alex Smith reports on a warm and welcoming region that’s beginning to attract the attention of the cruise world

Five Great Lakes, one grand cruise adventure

Jonathan Elliott

The Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway System stretches over 2,000 miles inland between the USA and Canada, connecting the Gulf of St. Lawrence with Duluth, Minnesota, on Lake Superior. Along the clear waters of the St. Lawrence Seaway and all five Great Lakes, unique ports dot the shoreline, rich with historic, maritime and Midwestern charm. The water is an everyday part of life in these communities, and they go out of their way to celebrate the cruise ships and their passengers as they sail into the region throughout the spring, summer and autumn.

The cruise world is increasingly starting to take notice of this warm and welcoming destination. Following a 22-year hiatus, the first foreign-flagged cruise ship transited the system in 1997 and there have since been a total of 20 different cruise ships operating in the Great Lakes. This destination is increasingly becoming popular for luxury size cruise ships, with nine ships calling in 2022 and 11 expected in 2023. Cruise ships can call at the Great Lakes between April and October.

Managing and promoting the seaway system is the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation (GLS), a government corporation responsible for operating and maintaining the US portion of the seaway between Montreal and Lake Erie. Working hand in hand with its Canadian partners at the St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation (SLSMC), the GLS has promoted the Great Lakes since the 1980s in an effort to increase cargo trade and tourism, create jobs and boost economic activity in the local port cities.

The GLS’s work helped encourage Viking Cruises to plan a Great Lakes itinerary in April 2022 for its first purpose-built expedition ship, Viking Octantis, which debuted earlier that year. Viking will double its presence in the region with the arrival of its second expedition ship, Viking Polaris, in spring 2023.

GLS is partnered with the binational Great Lakes Cruising Coalition (GLCC), which promotes the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway System as a destination for cruise ships. Its members consist of US and Canadian ports, vessel agencies, tourism entities and the Seaway authorities, who work together to encourage the growth of the international cruise industry.

“Cruise lines that work with the GLCC are provided with a wealth of information from lock transit requirements, to itinerary planning, port operations, shore excursions and facilitation support with federal agencies,” says Rebecca Yackley, director of trade and economic development for the GLS.

Another big reason behind the growing success of the region is a new network of US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) facilities, which have been strategically positioned to provide greater predictability for itinerary planners and an improved passenger experience.

With these initiatives in place, the Great Lakes are also perfectly positioned to take advantage of the growing small-ship segment of the cruise industry. Approximately a quarter of the cruise vessels being built today carry fewer than 400 passengers, as guests look for a more intimate experience in destinations off the beaten path.

These ships are small enough to navigate the three sets of man-made locks they will encounter along the waterway – and guests will find the ships being raised and lowered as they pass through the locks an attraction in itself. Along the way, the vessels will navigate the immense course of rivers, lakes and channels that characterise the region, combining the experiences of ocean travel and river cruising in an itinerary that will particularly appeal to experienced cruisers.

Ports of call are available in US Great Lakes states – including Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota – and the Canadian province of Ontario. On the shores of Lake Ontario, Toronto offers a chance to visit the world famous 147-storey CN Tower, while along the Welland Canal through to Lake Erie guests can enjoy a butterfly conservatory in Port Colborne, Ontario, that is home to over 2,000 butterflies of 45 species or a visit to Niagara Falls. Detroit, Michigan, showcases its automotive history at the Henry Ford Museum which visitors can follow up with a deep-dish square pizza or Coney hot dog. Bike trips and horse-drawn carriage rides are available on Mackinac Island, Michigan, while Georgian Bay, Ontario, offers the Science North interactive museum and the largest freshwater archipelago, Thirty Thousand Islands. On the south end of Lake Michigan, Chicago, Illinois, offers a wealth of culture, shopping and dining, with a river cruise to see the city’s architecture among its top attractions. Green Bay, Wisconsin is the home of historic NFL team the Green Bay Packers and their stadium Lambeau Field, while a new public market on Fox River and the Green Bay Botanical Garden offer alternative options.

Great Lakes destinations are in the process of improving and expanding their dock space and accommodations for cruise ships, with the ports of Cleveland and Duluth having invested in passenger clearance facilities and Muskegon and Milwaukee, have plans in place to build new docks to accommodate the larger expedition cruise ships.

“Unique onshore experiences immerse passengers in local history, art, architecture and culture in the surrounding states and provinces,” says Yackley. “Travellers disembark on Mackinac Island for horse and carriage rides, experience the Victorian homes and art museums of Muskegon, Michigan, and the gourmet cuisines of Milwaukee’s beer city food markets. Visitors tour the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio, and visit the Great Lakes Aquarium in Duluth. At every stop along the way, passengers are treated to award-winning cuisine and breathtaking views.”

Essential destinations
With so many options to choose from, CFIP highlights some of the many outstanding ports of call for cruise ships sailing the Great Lakes

Thunder Bay, Ontario
Thunder Bay in Ontario, Canada, is the largest city on the shore of Lake Superior, the world’s biggest freshwater lake, and is also located on the edge of the world’s largest contiguous boreal forest. Popular shore excursion options include visits to Kakabeka Falls, the second-highest waterfalls in Ontario; Fort William Historical Park, a reconstructed early 1800s fur trade post; and Anemki Wajew, a lookout over the city on First Nation land.

Meanwhile, Silver Islet, a small cottage hamlet outside of Thunder Bay, is popular for hiking, history walks and water-based activities, including the opportunity to dive down to shipwrecks using onboard submersibles. The peninsula includes Sleeping Giant Provincial Park, a popular destination for nature walks, paddle sports, mountain biking and wildlife viewing, that is also home to the highest cliffs in Ontario.

The Canadian north coast of the lake is part of the proposed Parks Canada Lake Superior National Marine Conservation Area, creating a unique future opportunity for cruise lines to explore the undeveloped coast. The area is the traditional lands of a large Anishnawbae Indigenous population that have called the area home for over 10,000 years, and is rich in wildlife including black bears, wolves, eagles, deer, moose and caribou.

Thunder Bay has become a turnaround port for Viking Cruises’ Viking Octantis in 2022 and 2023. The city’s Pool 6 Cruise Terminal is named after the property’s historical use as the world’s largest grain elevator in the 1900s. The 1,000-foot-long seaway draft pier specifically serves the needs of cruise ships and is a 10-minute walk or four-minute shuttle ride to the Waterfront retail and culinary district. The facility offers potable water, international waste handling services and local food supply options. Thunder Bay International Airport offers daily direct flights to Toronto Pearson and City Centre Airports, connecting the world to Thunder Bay.

Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Located on the shores of Lake Michigan, Milwaukee offers a blend of stunning natural beauty, big city arts, exciting entertainment, and Midwestern charm. The city’s downtown area is home to many of the best restaurants, bars, event venues, hotels and recreational activities throughout the entire Great Lakes region.

Immediately accessible from the downtown Pier Wisconsin cruise dock, a riverwalk connects the city’s East Side neighbourhood with the historic Third Ward district, featuring the lively Milwaukee Public Market. Milwaukee is home to the world’s only Harley-Davidson Museum and the Milwaukee Art Museum with its iconic wings, designed by internationally renowned architect and sculptor Santiago Calatrava. Milwaukee currently hosts six cruise lines, including Viking Cruises, Pearl Seas Cruises, American Queen Voyages, Ponant, Vantage Travel and Plantours. Thanks to these operators, Milwaukee estimates that over 12,000 passengers will have travelled throughout the city via a Great Lakes cruise ship in 2022. Pearl Seas Cruises has entered into a 10-year agreement with the port at Pier Wisconsin, while the City Heavy Lift Dock is the current berth of Viking Octantis.

Port Milwaukee is working to build a new cruise ship dock to accommodate vessels at a conveniently accessible location in the city’s outer harbour. Under the leadership of Mayor Cavalier Johnson, Port Milwaukee has received $4 million in grant funds from the State of Wisconsin to construct new infrastructure at South Shore Cruise Dock that will welcome international tourists for decades to come. Once construction at South Shore Cruise Dock is complete, vessels like Viking Octantis will have another dockside infrastructure option for cruise ship itineraries travelling to Milwaukee.

Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport is located a short eight-mile drive from downtown, making it an easy trip no matter where cruise guests are travelling from. The city also boasts ample access to the interstate, passenger rail to regional hotspots, a cross-lake ferry service, and local roadway connections.

Duluth, Minnesota
Situated right on Lake Superior, the vibrant community of Duluth has something for everyone. The city is home to a thriving arts, culture and entertainment scene, along with a range of dynamic food and beverage offerings.

Cruisers who dock in Duluth can expect a one-of-a-kind, memorable experience. Excursion offerings have included tours of the historic Glensheen Mansion, a ride on the North Shore Scenic Railroad, visits to the Great Lakes Aquarium, canoe trips down the St. Louis River, opportunities to taste local artisan food and beverages, and more.

The Duluth Entertainment Convention Center cruise facility dock wall will undergo an infrastructure transformation in 2023 and 2024 in preparation to host the largest cruise vessels visiting the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway System.

Muskegon, Michigan
Known as the historic Midwest Riviera, Muskegon is a showcase of architecture and public art gifted by the wealthy Michigan lumber barons of the late 1800s. Quaint, historic neighbourhoods feature local museums of history and art, along with several restored maritime vessels. Visitors can buy locally grown foods at the Farmers Market and taste craft beer and spirits while walking along the main street.

Muskegon’s cruise dock is in a park-like setting, within walking distance of the historic downtown area. A secure logistic staging area allows trucks and buses to turn around, and vessels can directly hook up for water and to a grey and brown water discharge system.

Cleveland, Ohio
A lakefront city which was one of the most important canal ports in the eastern USA in the 1800s, Cleveland offers everything from rock legends at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame to new discoveries at its indie music clubs and performances at the not-for-profit Playhouse Square.

Visitors can explore over 50,000 acres of parks and visit the Great Lakes Science Center, West Side Market and Cleveland Museum of Art, or venture further afield to tour Amish Country, which is an hour south of the city. One of the new customs and border protection passenger clearance facilities is within walking distance of vessels visiting the city, making it easier than ever to make a call.

This article was first published in the 2023 issue of Cruise & Ferry Itinerary Planning. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed. Subscribe to Cruise & Ferry Itinerary Planning for FREE here to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox or your door.

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Alex Smith
By Alex Smith
03 November 2022

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