What to know about Great Lakes cruise ships
The cruise ship industry has been steadily growing in the Great Lakes region over the past decade and a half. From just a couple of ships making sporadic trips in 2002, there are now five separate cruise lines operating seven ships, with even more fleet expansions expected in 2020.
“We have seen an increase in traffic and this year, for example, we will see 11,000 guests on six ships,” said Stephen Burnett, executive director of the Great Lakes Cruising Coalition. “When we multiply these ships by their departures and their capacity – this generates over 1 million times that a guest will enter a Great Lakes port.”
On one popular route, passengers board in Chicago, head to Holland, Michigan, cruise northward on Lake Michigan to Beaver Island, cross under the iconic bridge into Lake Huron, and visit Mackinac Island before looping back to Wisconsin’s Sturgeon Bay, Manitowoc, and Milwaukee.
Other international itineraries have vacationers exploring French Canada along the St. Lawrence Seaway, embarking at Montreal and heading northeast to Quebec City, then down through Lake Ontario to visit Kingston, Toronto, and Niagara Falls and ending with excursions in Cleveland and Detroit.
The Comeback Story
The cruise ship industry’s return after a 30-year absence owes its success, partially, to increased demand from the Great Lakes region’s 40 million residents, some of whom remember or have heard stories from their relatives of their time cruising during the 1950s and 1960s.
In addition, last year, then-Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder launched an initiative to attract more cruise ship tourism, working in tandem with other Great Lakes state governors and Canadian premiers in Ontario and Quebec.
Well before Snyder’s initiative, the Great Lakes Cruising Coalition formed some 20 years prior, and has been working in tandem with various cruise line operators and ship owners to charter multiple routes on these inland seas.
“We pitch ourselves as the last un-cruised region in the world,” said Burnett. “The Great Lakes is a small ship cruise region, an intimate cruise region, and that allows customers and clients to have a less frantic view of a port they’re in.”
Larger ships that can carry several thousand passengers like those offered by Carnival or Princess Cruise Lines are too large to fit through the St. Lawrence and Soo Locks, which means Great Lakes cruise-goers will have a much less crowded and more personable vessel-going experience.
The largest ship navigating the waters, the MS Hamburg, carries up to 400 passengers, while the smallest offering from St. Lawrence Cruise Lines’ M/V Canadian Empress caters to just 66 passengers.
The small size of these Great Lakes cruisers holds other vacationing advantages as well.
“Our boats are really built to go where the big ships cannot, that’s kind of our tagline,” said Kayla Setters, spokesperson for Blount Small Ship Adventures. Blount’s current fleet, comprised of the 83- and 84-passenger Grand Caribe and Grand Mariner respectively, is designed to allow passengers to walk directly from ship to shore, or dock at hard-to-reach remote islands that would be logistically impossible for any larger ship.
On the Great Lakes, cruise itineraries are built around exploring numerous coastal cities, open-air viewing of Canadian and American natural vistas, and guided tours of historical forts and villages. Several offer onboard lecturers.
“My topics are extremely varied,” said Howard Schuster, a lecturer who has worked on Victory Cruise Lines for the past three years. “Anything from Native history of a particular area, to things like the construction of the Welland Canal, or when we go through the (St. Lawrence) Seaway, I talk about the political process leading to the construction of the Seaway, I talk about the invasive plants and animals, battles that took place on Lake Erie during the War of 1812.”
What to Know If You Want to Go
Whether you’re interested in a trip on Great Lakes or the St. Lawrence Seaway, and the ships you will be voyaging on, further information such as departure dates and pricing can be found online at Great Lakes Cruise Company, USA River Cruises, St. Lawrence Cruise Line, or Hapag-Lloyd Cruises.
Travel agents and the U.S. and Canadian Coast Guards recommend that you carry either a passport or travel visa, as some itineraries will have you traveling between the United States and Canada. Failure to carry these can lead to an unwanted early cancellation of the remainder of your trip.
The Great Lakes cruising season will begin in earnest in mid-May, continuing throughout the summer months. Departure dates are most common during May, June, and July, and less frequent in August and September.
Travel agents recommend going during the months of June and July, as this is usually when destination cities are simultaneously hosting summer festivals and other seasonal events passengers can experience.
Featured Image: The Grande Caribe along the St. Lawrence Seaway, Photo by Blount Small Ship Adventures via Allison Faria