Blount Small Ship Adventures’ Grande Mariner, seen here in Chicago, holds 84 passengers. The cruise line added a new trip this season that travels from Chicago to Montreal, hitting four Great Lakes over 14 days on the water. (Blount Small Ship Adventures)
When it comes to hot new cruise destinations, the Great Lakes are living up to their name.
This veritable freshwater ocean — boasting 11,000 miles of shoreline, including islands — is attracting a lot of attention lately from cruise ship companies wanting alternatives for passengers who may be tired of pingponging around the Caribbean or who loathe to make a long flight across the ocean for a European voyage.
Great Lakes cruise operators are bulking up their brochures with additional trips this season, and lines that bailed on the area years ago are headed back. Industry experts expect companies that have never plied Great Lakes waters to come on board in the near future.
“I’m extremely excited about what’s happening,” said Dave Lorenz, chair of Cruise the Great Lakes, a new international partnership aimed at bringing more cruise passengers to the region. The initiative was announced last summer on Michigan’s Mackinac Island, a popular port of call on Great Lakes itineraries.
“The best thing about it is that these are not 4,000-passenger ships that destroy the experience for people who live there,” said Lorenz, vice president of Travel Michigan, the state’s tourism arm. “You look at places like Venice or Barcelona, and they’re actively fighting to keep out the huge cruise ships. In our case, you’re talking a couple hundred people per ship. They get to see this is a pretty stunningly beautiful area, and it opens the door for them to come back later on.”
The Grande Mariner docked at Mackinac Island, with the historic Fort Mackinac in the distance. Mackinac Island is a popular port of call on Great Lakes cruises. (Blount Small Ship Adventures)
Victory I, shown here in Detroit, is one of two ships that had been cruising the Great Lakes for Victory Cruise Lines, recently purchased by American Queen Steamboat Company. AQSC is remodeling both ships for the upcoming season. (Victory Cruise Lines)
The 210-passenger Pearl Mist in Muskegon, Mich., one of the spots visited on Pearl Seas Cruises’ Great Lakes voyages. Cruise ships from three lines are scheduled to dock in Muskegon this season. (Eagle Eye Photography)
“One of the new ships will go to the Great Lakes, so we’ll have two ships there before too long,” CEO Charles A. Robertson said.
After more than a decade since it last sailed the Great Lakes, the French luxury cruise line Ponant is making its return this season with a few trips aboard Le Champlain, an elegant new ship with 92 staterooms and suites.
Next year, German-based Hapag-Lloyd Cruises will be back with a 14-day cruiseon all five Great Lakes aboard its freshly minted luxury expedition vessel, Hanseatic Inspiration, built with a retractable bridge wing that makes it possible to pass through narrow locks.
The French luxury cruise line Ponant will make its return to the Great Lakes this season with a few trips aboard Le Champlain, seen here last year while cruising in Norway. (Ponant)
The soon-to-launch Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection, which will start cruising in early 2020, has plans to eventually expand its fleet into the St. Lawrence Seaway and Great Lakes area.
“Guests will also have the opportunity to enrich their voyage experience with unique programming at nearby Ritz-Carlton properties in Toronto and Chicago,” a spokeswoman said.
Rumors have been floating that Viking Cruises — a huge player in Europe — may be headed this way. A Viking spokesman was mum on the matter.
The Canada-based Great Lakes Cruising Coalition has spent more than two decades advocating passenger cruising on the Great Lakes. Stephen Burnett, who heads the organization, said that work is paying off. He’s in talks with cruise lines in Israel, Greece, France, Norway and Monaco about branching out into the Great Lakes.
“We’re on a bit of a roll at the moment,” Burnett said, adding that the perceived safety of traveling on the Great Lakes makes it especially appealing to cruisers and cruise lines alike.
“But the main reason they’re coming is the product — the lakes themselves, the itineraries,” he said. “They’re outstanding.”