To people who grew up near the Great Lakes, these bodies of water are no big deal.
But to the rest of the world, they are extraordinary spaces that invite exploration, says Chris Conlin, president of Great Lakes Cruise Co., a Michigan travel agency that specializes in lake cruises.
Great Lakes cruising has experienced a renaissance in recent years, with new ships added annually and a growing number of passengers sailing the waters every year.
Ports of call, too, have been added and evolved.
Cleveland has emerged as a popular destination, set to welcome five different cruise ships in 2019, making at least 35 daylong stops and bringing more than 7,000 passengers to town.
That’s up by more than 300% in two years, according to the Port of Cleveland.
Most of those passengers will arrive on two ships, both with Victory Cruise Lines, a small, highly regarded company founded in 2016. The company was recently purchased by American Queen Steamboat Co., a well-known brand that is expected to expand Victory’s reach.
These are not budget vacations. Victory cruises start at about $6,400 for nine nights. And some newer lines entering the market – including the Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection, starting in 2020 – will be priced significantly higher.
But cost doesn’t seem to be much of a deterrent for these older, experienced travelers, many of whom are coming from Europe and the western United States, where the Great Lakes are unexplored territory.
“Most people around the world don’t understand how big the Great Lakes are,” said David Lorenz, head of Travel Michigan. He was tapped last year to chair a new international effort, “Cruise the Great Lakes,” to market the region to passengers and cruise lines. “Even people in the United States don’t understand that these bodies of water are like being on the ocean.”
An added bonus of the cruise-ship visitors, according to Lorenz: Many of these travelers may be interested enough in one or more of the ports to make a return trip, for a longer stay.
John Waggoner, chairman and CEO of the American Queen Steamboat Co., said he has been looking for an entrance into the Great Lakes market for years.
American Queen, which specializes in river cruising on the Mississippi and other U.S tributaries, has built up a following of travelers who have money to spend. “There’s demand from our customers to try something new,” said Waggoner. “The Great Lakes are so unexplored. We’re very excited.”
The 202-passenger Victory I and the Victory II will make a total of 27 stops in Cleveland this season — at least once per week — starting May 15. The ships run two separate itineraries that stop in Cleveland:
* Great Lakes Grand Discovery travels between Toronto and Chicago over nine nights, with stops in Niagara Falls, Cleveland, Detroit, Little Current (Ontario), Sault Saint Marie, and Mackinac Island.
* French Canada and the Great Lakes travels between Montreal and Detroit, with stops in Quebec City, Kingston (Ontario), Toronto and Cleveland.
Victory’s daylong stops in Cleveland include an overview tour on Lolly the Trolley, with afternoon options that include stops at the Rock Hall, Cleveland Museum of Art, or independent exploration.
“I was pleasantly surprised at how much our guests really like Cleveland,” said Waggoner. Cleveland, he added, ranked higher on passenger surveys than Toronto and Chicago.
American Steamboat recently renovated the two Victory ships, which feature several lounges, two restaurants and a spa (but no pools, casinos or rock-climbing walls). Waggoner said the company may tweak the shore experiences in Cleveland and elsewhere, starting next year. Waggoner also hopes to add signature, Cleveland-only events, typically held in the evening before ships depart for their next port of call.
The Victory ships aren’t the only ones sailing through Cleveland, or the Great Lakes. Also scheduled to sail this season:
* The Grand Mariner and Grand Caribe, nimble, 84-passenger ships, will sail throughout the summer in the Great Lakes on a “Great American Waterways” itinerary, Chicago to New York City, with a dozen stops along the way, including Cleveland. These ships are small enough to dock along the Cuyahoga River, not at the Port of Cleveland.
* The 210-passenger Pearl Mist sails a Toronto to Milwaukee itinerary, but does not stop in Cleveland.
* Le Champlain, a 184-passenger ship from luxury line Ponant, will travel to the Great Lakes this fall for an 11-day Quebec to Milwaukee itinerary. It will not stop in Cleveland.
* The MS Hamburg, with 420 passengers, is the largest passenger ship in the Great Lakes. Previously known as the Columbus, the 420-passenger ship cruised the Great Lakes for years with Germany’s Hapag-Lloyd Cruises, but didn’t stop in Cleveland. Sailing with an all-German group, the ship is scheduled to dock twice in Cleveland this fall, on an “Indian summer in the Great Lakes” itinerary.
Speaking of Hapag-Lloyd, the company is building a new ship for the Great Lakes, the 174-passenger Hanseatic Inspiration, which will start sailing the Great Lakes in summer 2020.
Also coming in 2020: Ritz-Carlton’s new cruise line, the Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection, which plans itineraries in the Great Lakes. A spokeswoman for the company said the itinerary was not set and she could not say whether Cleveland would be a stop. William Friedman, president CEO of the Port of Cleveland, likes Cleveland’s chances: “They like to stop in cities where they have hotels. I’m feeling good about them.”
There are also rumors that Viking – the well-regarded, dominant river cruise company in Europe – will enter the Great Lakes market in the coming years.
“I’ve heard that might happen,” said Conlin, the travel agent. “I would not be surprised.”
One thing Conlin said he’s not worried about: overcrowding. Even with this recent surge of interest, Great Lakes cruising is a far cry from its heyday a century or so ago, when more than 100 steamers crisscrossed the lakes in a single summer.
The St. Lawrence Seaway, which connects Lake Ontario with the Atlantic Ocean, serves as a gatekeeper to growth, permitting in ships that are a maximum of just 78 feet wide. An increasing number of cruise lines are investing in these smaller ships.
“As cruise lines continue to add product, they are looking for new waters to sail in,” said Conlin. “And the Great Lakes have great appeal.”