Charles and Amy Stephens have taken many cruises to exotic shores during their 40-year marriage. They've meandered around the Mediterranean, sailed the Danube River, and rounded South America's Cape Horn. Then, last summer, these world travelers embarked on a luxury cruise to a region that to them was unexplored territory: America's Great Lakes. "We just thought it would be nice to start seeing the U.S.," says Stephens, a San Marino (Calif.) businessman. "This is a wonderful way to do it."
Especially after the September 11 terrorist attacks, many Americans are discovering the pleasures of traveling closer to home. "We're finding people are coming to the Great Lakes because they're interested in a new itinerary that's right in their backyard," says Chris Conlin, president of Ann Arbor (Mich.)-based Conlin Travel, which sells chartered cruises through the lakes. Their trips offer spectacular scenery, rich history, and embarkation points that are easy to reach by air from almost anywhere in the country.
The newfound interest is helping a handful of companies' efforts to revive passenger sailing in the inland seas. About a half-dozen cruise ships now ply the waters May through October. While that's nothing compared with the heyday of Great Lakes cruising in the early 20th century, it's a change from just six years ago, when cruises were virtually nonexistent.
Travelers today can pick among itineraries that start in Chicago, Port Huron, Mich., or Windsor, Ont., Detroit's Canadian neighbor. A popular route goes from Toronto to Chicago, sailing into the Great Lakes—Ontario, Erie, Huron, Superior, and Michigan. Along the way, the ships stop in big cities as well as in quiet, scenic spots such as Michigan's Mackinac Island and Whitefish Point or the quaint village of Little Current on Canada's Manitoulin Island, where passengers are treated to a powwow by members of the native Ojibway tribe.
Unlike popular cruises to, say, the Caribbean, sailing on the Great Lakes is on an intimate scale. The ships are a lot smaller, the largest being the MV Columbus, which carries 420 passengers. Compare that with 2,758 for the Carnival Victory, one of the biggest in the fleet of Carnival Cruise Lines, which operates along many Caribbean, Hawaiian, and Alaskan routes.
Because the ships often sail close to the shore, the Great Lakes cruises are conducive to nature watching. Fall color cruises are popular. Forget gambling and the Vegas-style acts offered on most big boats. Entertainment on the Great Lakes ships is more subdued. You'll dine early—say, at 6—and then perhaps while away the evening in the lounge dancing to a German jazz band.
Fares, meanwhile, can be pricey. Seven nights aboard the Columbus range from about $995 per person, double occupancy, for an inside cabin to $4,400 for an outside suite, including meals, entertainment, and a room in a luxury hotel the night before departure. Airfare is extra, as are cocktails and shore excursions. Le Levant, a more luxurious ship with a capacity of just 95 passengers, offers eight-night cruises ranging from $3,850 to $5,525. By contrast, a seven-night, autumn Carnival cruise to the Caribbean would range from $649 to $1,049.
Oddly, Europeans were the first to reignite interest in the Great Lakes as a cruise destination, in the late 1990s. Hapag-Lloyd Group, a German shipbuilder, built the Columbus specifically to navigate the lakes' narrow locks. The ship is only about 70 feet wide, with its lifeboats built into the sides of the vessel. When the Columbus made its maiden voyage to the Great Lakes in 1997, it carried only German tourists. A year later, the Le Levant also began sailing the lakes.
It didn't take long for the Americans to catch on. Three years ago, Conlin Travel teamed up with the European owners of both ships and now offers chartered cruises through a separate subsidiary, Great Lakes Cruise. While the ships sail only in U.S. and Canadian waters, their crews are international, giving a foreign flavor to the experience. One odd twist: Because the ships fly under European flags, cocktails and items from the gift shops are priced in euros.
Lectures on nature and the region's rich history are popular perks on the Columbus and Le Levant, which generally offer two a day. Passengers learn how the five lakes were left behind after the last glaciers melted away more than 10,000 years ago. While there's plenty of breathtaking scenery to savor in the northern wilderness, passengers also learn about the role the lakes have played in U.S. commerce, from fur trading in the early 1600s to steelmaking today.
One of the most fascinating experiences during any Toronto-to-Chicago cruise is the six-hour trip through the Welland Canal in Ontario. The 26-mile canal linking Lake Ontario with Lake Erie was constructed in 1829 so ships could detour around Niagara Falls. Although passengers can disembark to visit the falls—taking a bus to catch the ship at the other end of the canal—many prefer to stay on board and watch how a series of locks are filled with water to carry the ship up and over the cliff face of the Niagara Escarpment. That 1,000-foot cargo ships may be going through the locks at the same time makes the experience even more exciting. For Kirk and Susan Hays of Austin, Tex., the passage was a highlight of their trip on the Columbus last September. "You're all but five or six feet from the edge of the lock, so there's no margin for error," marvels Kirk Hays.
Nautical history buffs look forward to visiting the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point, Mich., one of the stops in Le Levant's itinerary. Among the exhibits is a recently recovered bronze bell from the Edmund Fitzgerald, an ore carrier that sank in 1975 for still unexplained reasons, killing all 29 men aboard. Passengers don't need to disembark to view some of what the museum offers. As museum divers with underwater cameras explore a shipwreck, images and audio are fed live to Le Levant's TV screens.
The most frequent stop on the cruises is Mackinac Island (pronounced Mackinaw), where bicycles and horse-drawn carriages are the only modes of transportation. Except for the tourists, the town looks much as it did in 1875, when Congress designated most of the island a national park. A highlight is a stroll along the 660-foot porch of the Greek Revival-style Grand Hotel. In an era when some travelers are too frightened to set foot on an airplane, a trip back in time via the Great Lakes might be just the ticket.