The long journey across the Great Lakes begins in Lake Superior, the world’s largest freshwater lake.
From there, the St. Marys River leads south into Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, before the waterway heads through the St. Clair River, Lake St. Clair and the Detroit River to arrive in Lake Erie. The voyage continues through the Welland Canal, over Lake Ontario and northwest along the mighty St. Lawrence River until it finally comes to an end at the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Atlantic Ocean.
In total, the system of lakes, rivers, and canals extends some 3,766 kilometres from Duluth, Minnesota, to Atlantic Canada on the coast, and every part is accessible onboard an oceangoing cruise ship. Blending both river and ocean cruise experiences, the unique journey offers guests a vast range of destinations and excursions to enjoy.
A cruise through the region offers passengers a chance to explore a familiar landscape in a new way.
“For American and Canadian guests, the Great Lakes and Canadian Maritimes is a beautiful region to cruise that is close to home and easily accessible,” says Alexa Paolella, public relations manager for Pearl Seas Cruises. “Many of our guests, both those who have grown up in the area, and even those who still live there now, are cruising the region for the first time and experiencing it anew from the water.”
For those arriving from further afield, the voyage is one full of new discoveries, as they visit the many ports and destinations that line the banks of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway.
“For many of our guests, the Great Lakes remains quite an under-the-radar destination,” says Neil Barclay, head of sales at Viking UK. “I think this is part of the attraction for some travellers – our guests want to visit hidden, undiscovered destinations which are off the beaten track.”
Viking offers several cruises exploring the Great Lakes, including the 15-day ‘Great Lakes Collection’, itinerary. The voyage sails through all five of the lakes and includes a visit to Makinac Island, along with calls to Toronto, Niagara Falls, Georgian Bay, Silver Islet and Thunder Bay in Canada and Cleveland, Detroit, Alpena, the Door Peninsula, Milwaukee, Muskegon and Duluth in the USA.
“Visits to the remote national parks is also a key part of each itinerary,” says Barclay. “Point Pelee is one of these and is a pristine area that points into Lake Erie from Ontario. The peninsula comprises woodlands and the largest freshwater marshes on the Great Lakes. Guests might choose to explore the various wetland habitats on one of the Military Pro Zodiacs or note the local flora and wildlife that inhabit the marshes on one of our military-grade special operation boats.”
At the other end of the St. Lawrence Seaway, Atlantic Canada offers its own unique landscape and culture. Made up of the provinces of New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, the region features many picturesque cruise ports. More than 600 vessel calls will be made over 2023 in a record year for the region, after Viking’s expedition ship Viking Octantis kicked off the season in April.
Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines is also among the visitors to Atlantic Canada and offers two itineraries to the region. The 27-night ‘Glacial Landscapes and Wildlife of Canada and Greenland’ itinerary departs from Liverpool, UK, onboard Bolette and includes calls to both Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, where guests can visit the site of a 1,000-year-old Norse settlement, L’Anse aux Meadows. Borealis’s 26-night ‘Canada in the Fall’ itinerary, meanwhile, departs from Southampton, UK, in October each year, and arrives in Atlantic Canada as the foliage changes colour for the autumn.
“We time our cruises to reach Canada when the world’s largest population of humpback whales usually feed off the coast of Newfoundland, giving nature lovers the chance to spot misty blowholes and arching fins and flukes,” says Martin Lister, head of itinerary planning and destination experiences at Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines. “Stepping ashore, our guests revel in visiting destinations including La Mauricie National Park and Corner Brook to see colourful autumn foliage and scenic landscapes along the Saguenay National Park and River, St. Lawrence River and Gros Morne National Park where they can walk on the Earth’s mantle.”
Pearl Seas Cruises, on the other hand, offers sailings across the entire Great Lakes, St. Lawrence Seaway and Atlantic Canada region onboard its small ship, Pearl Mist. The 15-night ‘St. Lawrence Seaway and Great Lakes’ itinerary begins in Quebec City, Quebec, and ends in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, including stops in Montreal in Quebec, Cleveland in Ohio and Detroit in Michigan. Like Fred. Olsen, the cruise line heads to Atlantic Canada for the autumn, with a 10-night itinerary beginning in Quebec City and visiting ports such as Charlottetown on Prince Edward Island and Halifax in Nova Scotia, before ending in Portland, Maine.
“In 2024 Pearl Seas is offering the only fully stabilised, 100 per cent private balcony ship on the Great Lakes, and our small ship cruises on the Great Lakes, St. Lawrence Seaway, and Georgian Bay offer a number of stand-out ports of call,” says Paolella. “Small ship cruising, bar none, is the most spectacular way to explore this magnificent region, and it is, without a doubt, a journey worth the trip for guests from countries further afield. There is nowhere else like it in the world.”
This article was first published in the 2024 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 to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox.