Cruising the Great Lakes

Picture your dream cruise. A week in the Caribbean with stops in the Bahamas and Mexico. Plenty of beach days, duty-free shopping and mojitos. A relaxing, luxury sea getaway on an elephantine ocean liner. International waters, sunny skies and no problems.

Now, picture the Midwest Great Lakes. Frigid waters, gray skies and blustery winds. At least, that’s what most people picture. It doesn’t seem like the best place for a relaxing cruise. But, for better or for worse, the industry is changing. And the Great Lakes are along for the ride.

Avid tropical cruisers might be appalled at first by this shift. But good news – there are actually many benefits to cruising the Great Lakes instead. Maybe even enough for some to consider the switch.

Return to the Lake

With the rise of regional travel during the pandemic came the increased popularity of the Great Lakes as an unlikely cruise destination. But it’s not a new concept. In the 1800s, traveling by ship was one of the most efficient ways to get around the upper Midwest. It was common for people in cities like Chicago to board a steamship and cruise up north to cleaner air and crisp forests. It’s how destinations like Michigan’s Mackinac Island became popular. 

By the mid-1900s, leisure cruises along the Great Lakes fell out of popularity and practical ferries took their place — until now. Paul Brady, cruise expert and editor at Travel + Leisure Magazine said that the rising popularity of Great Lakes cruises shows a shift in what vacationers are looking for in the industry. 

“I think there’s less emphasis in travel these days on just leaning back in a deck chair and getting a tan,” Brady said. “People want to be hands-on. People want to learn stuff. People want to discover.”

The American Queen Voyages’s ship, the Victory I, surrounded by smaller boats in the harbor.
Credit: Charles Grubisic | The American Queen Voyages’s ship, the Victory I, outside of the Mackinac Island Yacht Club.

Great Lakes cruises tend to offer excursions and activities that cater to those desires. Activities include everything from visiting the Rosa Parks bus at the Henry Ford Museum in Detroit to kayaking over shipwrecks in the shallow waters of the National Maritime Sanctuary in Michigan. Viking cruises even offer science experiments and activities on board. And since there’s less distance between ports than on traditional cruises, vacationers get more time to spend off-ship exploring. 

A Cozy Berth

Another bonus: The ships are a lot smaller than the ones in the Caribbean. Because the world’s biggest cruise lines like Royal Caribbean, Norwegian and Carnival have ships that are too big to get to the Great Lakes through the St. Lawrence Seaway, the Great Lakes has turned into an area dominated by small ships and smaller cruise operators like Viking, American Queen Voyages, Pearl Sea Cruises, Hapag-Lloyd and Ponant Cruises. Viking is one of the leaders of the group with the recent addition of two ships to their fleet specifically built for the Great Lakes: the Viking Octantis and Viking Polaris. 

Smaller, more specialized ships come with a higher price tag, though. For example, the eight-day “Great Lakes Explorer” cruise by Viking can cost around $6,500 per person. In the Caribbean, on much larger ships, a trip with a similar-length itinerary could be closer to $1,000 per person. 

Luckily there are some more budget-friendly alternatives for those looking to explore the Great Lakes. One option is taking a car ferry. No, it isn’t as glamorous, but it gives people the opportunity to see the Great Lakes and check out a port or two, all at a fraction of the cost. 

One popular option on Lake Michigan is the historical S.S. Badger. This 70-year-old steamship started its life as a ferry for railroad cars. Now, it takes guests and their cars from Manitowoc, Wisconsin, to Ludington, Michigan. A roundtrip journey in the summer will cost about $150 per person. For an additional $55, staterooms are also available. Not too bad, especially when considering the amenities available. While on board, passengers can play bingo, watch movies in a theater, lounge on the deck and even visit a museum dedicated to maritime history. 

A bird’s-eye view of Lake Huron and several boats in the harbor from Fort Mackinac of Mackinac Island, Michigan.
Credit: Charles Grubisic | The view from Fort Mackinac of Mackinac Island, a popular tourist destination for Great Lake cruisers.

The Trend Forecast

Great Lakes cruises were certainly a pandemic trend, when travelers turned to low-stakes, regional travel. As international travel opens up, will Great Lakes cruises be around to stay?

Brady seems to think so. He said there’s a lot of growth potential for other brands in the Great Lakes. The only hurdle is the high cost of operation. The season is short compared to the Caribbean and the ships are a lot smaller, which means fewer guests. This is great for vacationers looking to escape the crowds but challenging for cruise companies. 

According to Brady, the high costs are probably not an issue. It seems consumer spending on travel and leisure experiences is extremely durable. It remained strong and steady during a global pandemic, and if it could endure that, a little chilly weather is nothing.

“I think the future is pretty bright for it,” said Brady. 


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *