Learning that small passenger ships were again sailing the Great Lakes from Toronto to Chicago was, for me, akin to discovering a new American coastline had been found.
“Last year there were 30 voyages through the Great Lakes carrying 6,000 passengers, and that is expected to double in 2019,” says Heidi Allison, president of CruiseComplete.com, which publishes information on the cruise industry. “The newly formed Great Lakes Cruising Coalition is promoting the destination, and is in talks with eight significant cruise lines about introducing ships onto the Great Lakes.”
The “new” destination is a revival of what was once a popular route for tourist ships, but their harbor-hopping visits ceased in the mid-1950s when stringent safely regulations were introduced.
There are several reasons for the resurgence in passenger travel on one of the world’s largest surface freshwater ecosystems, often referred to as an “inland sea.” The itinerary is appealing to older, experienced travelers seeking a new adventure, and one free of the hassle of changing accommodations every few days. Also, the major embarkation and debarkation ports of Chicago and Toronto are very convenient compared to most foreign destinations.
The small passenger ship size (200 guests or fewer) means activities from dining to tours are handled efficiently, and it is easy to find your way around the vessel. Finally, for those timid about sea travel, land is visible most days.
One firm that has been offering Great Lakes cruises is Victory Cruise Lines, which is owned by the American Queen Steamboat Company.
“We are thrilled to be offering itineraries that explore the Great Lakes and French Canadian waters,” says John Waggoner, company chairman and CEO. “There is no better way to experience the unique culture, beauty and diversity of the area than by a cruise in a region that our customers have been requesting for years.”
For all those reasons, I booked a cabin on the Victory I for an 11-day journey to experience this developing destination for myself.
The July cruise originated in Toronto, a Canadian destination unto itself, and many passengers arrived early to explore the city on their own. Throughout the first night, the Victory I passed through the eight locks of the 27-mile Welland Canal, ascending 327 feet from Lake Ontario up to Lake Erie and the tiny port town of Port Colborne, Ontario. In the morning, we were bused to Niagara Falls for a soaking ride on The Maid of the Mist, which has been taking tourists to the base of the188-foot Horseshoe Falls since1847.
The ports of Cleveland and Detroit do not normally enter into a conversation about cruises, but Victory I made worthwhile stops at each city, docking only a short walk from the center of the downtown areas.
Our Cleveland guide aboard “Lolly the Trolley” chauffeured small groups from the boat on a 20-mile journey past city sights. Everyone on board was amazed at the vitality of this flourishing, revitalized metropolis, and what we saw became a topic of conversation the remainder of the voyage. Stops included the 1901 Wade Memorial Chapel, constructed in honor of Cleveland industrialist Jeptha Wade. The interior walls, ceiling and even the floor are decorated with glass mosaic tile designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany. The centerpiece is the awe-inspiring 9- by 7-foot stained glass window, “The Flight of Souls.”
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In Detroit, the Victory I docked in front of the Renaissance Center, a cluster of seven gleaming towers and headquarters of General Motors. In the morning, we toured the Detroit Institute of Arts, recognized as among the top 10 museums in the nation. The highlight among the 100 galleries at the institution was the center courtyard and a four-walled mural conceived by Mexican muralist Diego Rivera (1886-1957) as a tribute to Detroit’s manufacturing base and labor force of the 1930s. Rivera completed the 27-panel work in 11 months, from April 1932 to March 1933, and considered it the best work of his career.
Docking in the quaint town of Little Current, on Manitoulin Island, Ontario, Victory I was welcomed at the First Nations reservation of the Ojibwe, where the Catholic priest demonstrated how the indigenous island culture is interwoven with Christian beliefs. An example was the deerskin vestment he wore, with tassels on the fringe, and the baptismal font made from the shell of a turtle.
Sault Ste. Marie, in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, was the port where we toured the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society Museum and learned there have been over 6,000 shipwrecks on the Great Lakes, with a total loss of life of 20,000. Nearby, the 550-foot freighter Valley Camp that had sailed the lakes from 1917 to 1966 is now a museum dedicated to the history of Great Lakes shipping.
A display about the Edmond Fitzgerald that went down in a storm in 1975 with a loss of life of all 20 on board included the radio transmissions from the captain, who was commanding his last voyage before retiring.
The final port of call before sailing onto Lake Michigan and disembarking in Chicago was Mackinac Island, Michigan on Lake Huron. We discovered automobiles have been banned since 1900 in favor of horses and bicycles. A carriage-ride tour revealed there was one doctor in town, but three veterinarians to care for the 600 island horses. Even funerals are still held using a horse-drawn hearse.
“Residents refer to tourists as ‘fudgies,’” our carriage driver told us, remarking on the habit of visitors to flock to the 17 island fudge shops to taste free samples.
Mackinac is known for the magnificent 1887 Grand Hotel, boasting the largest front porch in the world at 660 feet and supported by a promenade of huge columns. As a carryover from the Victorian Age, croquet is still being played on the expansive front lawn.
Two cruise days were spent sailing. Navigating through a parade of islands, we continually passed the American flag flying at island homes on our port (left side) and Canadian flags on our starboard, and past a procession of lonely lighthouses.
There were onboard talks about the history of the Great Lakes, and a trio of musicians entertained nightly featuring different musical themes. Five-course dinners were an opportunity to add a pound of weight a night.
By the end of the voyage, the Victory I had sailed onto each of the five Great Lakes, and visited major metropolitan cities and tiny island towns in the United States and Canada. It was a truly enjoyable journey, now awaiting discovery.