The sea caves of Wisconsin’s Apostle Islands are simply stunning for Great Lakes cruisers and kayakers. Photograph courtesy of National Park Service

Some travelers prefer to propel themselves via water. Experts say the number of cruisers is only going to rise as COVID’s severity recedes (despite its ubiquitousness) and it becomes endemic. And while the oceans, European rivers and the Mediterranean Sea are the most popular bodies of water to explore, there’s been increased interest in cruising America’s “inland seas,” a.k.a. the Great Lakes (GL.) Indeed, this summer and fall three operators, some quite well-known, are offering GL cruises: American Queen Voyages, Viking and Pearl Seas Cruises. American Queen and Viking both stop in Cleveland for day-long port excursions.
Due to the region’s intemperate climate, GL cruising has a short season: generally May to September. Some operators, however, cruise into October to take advantage of the Northeast’s “leaf-peeping” season. Weather isn’t the only constraint. The season is limited by the opening and closing of the St. Lawrence Seaway, the system of locks, canals and channels that connect the Atlantic to the GL region. As a result, some operators have built expedition ships to accommodate GL touring. They’re generally smaller and nimbler to access remote locations.
There are several theories about why there’s been increased demand for GL cruises: Pent-up interest during COVID; some travelers prefer avoiding the hassle of ever-changing international entry requirements (although many GL itineraries include Canadian ports, so passports are a must); perhaps the best reason is the vast range of things to do/see on this huge system of waterways that make up more than 20 percent of the world’s fresh water: interesting cities such as Milwaukee, Chicago, Toronto and Montreal–and of course our underrated hometown, Cleveland; plus quaint villages and islands as well as unsurpassed natural beauty including Lake Superior’s Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore and Wisconsin’s Apostle Islands–two of only three lake shores that are part of the National Park Service system. And let’s face it, for East or West Coast dwellers, they may never have seen many of these destinations except Chicago.
According to a spokesperson for American Queen Voyages, their most popular GL itinerary is the Chicago to Toronto voyage. American Queen is the only operator that’s allowed to dock at Chicago’s Navy Pier. “Guests enjoy stopping in: Detroit, Mackinac Island, Niagara Falls, Little Current, Sault Ste. Marie–and of course Cleveland. The Cleveland Hop, Hop-Off on, Hop Tour is a favorite. This tour includes a visit to the The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland History Center, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, The Arcade, Old Stone Church, and many more.” American Queen offers unlimited tours in each port as part of its all-inclusive approach to pricing. Some premium tours require an additional fee.
Viking is a new entrant into this market and offers GL cruises on its “new Polar Class Viking Octantis and Viking Polaris hosting 378 guests in 189 staterooms. The vessels are purpose-built for expeditions, at an ideal size for safety and comfort in remote destinations. With more indoor and outdoor viewing areas than other expedition vessels, guests are as close as possible to the most magnificent scenery on earth,” states a press release. Viking offers a number of GL itineraries ranging from 8-15 days, including their new, 15-day Great Lakes Collection cruise from Duluth to Toronto. The ports include: Duluth, Thunder Bay, ON, Sault Sainte Marie, MI (where the famous Soo locks are), Wisconsin’s Door Peninsula, Georgian Bay, ON, Cleveland, Niagara Falls and Toronto. Their “Undiscovered Great Lakes” itinerary from Thunder Bay to Milwaukee focuses more on non-urban stops and outdoor activities, including kayaking Ontario’s Silver Islet; exploring the sea caves of Wisconsin’s Apostle Islands (something this reporter has long had on her list) and Michigan’s quaint, car-free Mackinac Island.
Pearl Seas offers seven and 11-night GL and Georgian Bay cruises that “explore the delightful town of Holland, home to the only authentic Dutch windmill in North America. Wind down with the slow-paced lifestyle of Mackinac Island where visitors and residents travel by bicycle, horse-drawn carriage or on foot. On your way to Parry Sound, marvel at the unique geologic formations and untouched wilderness that lines the shores of Georgian Bay” aboard the Pearl Mist. This ship accommodates 210 guests, has gracefully-appointed staterooms with private balconies, plus “spacious lounges to fit every mood – from the quiet library to the social atmosphere of the Atlantic Lounge. The Pearl Mist also features open sun decks, a fitness area, and a glass-enclosed dining room offering panoramic views,” according to its website.
So even though Northeast Ohioans can easily access our Great Lake Erie, these itineraries make it clear there’s plenty more to discover along the shores of America’s immense inland seas.
For more information, visit: