A German ship sails Lake Huron, stopping for a powwow in Canada and a horse-powered tour of Mackinac Island, Mich.
I am a sucker for the Great Lakes. I vacation on them. I swim in them. I walk their beaches and scuba dive in them. I even live on one—Lake Erie. But one of the few things I'd never done on the Great Lakes was take a cruise.
Great Lakes passenger ships have a long and venerable history. In the days before cars and planes, when ships offered the most exciting way to get somewhere, vacationers from Cleveland, Buffalo, Chicago and Milwaukee regularly boarded vessels that took them to resort towns. Many of these ships boasted a level of luxury that rivaled oceangoing liners. Very few of these historic vessels remain; the once-beautiful Keewatin, now a museum on Lake Michigan, is in a sad state of disrepair.
It took Europeans to revive interest in passenger ships on the Great Lakes: In 1997 the Columbus was built in Germany specifically to navigate the Great Lakes. The 472-foot cruise ship sails all over the world, spending winters in tropical locales like the Caribbean or the South Pacific. But in the summer it comes back to the lakes.
Owned by a German company, Hapag-Lloyd, the Columbus is chartered each year by one or more American companies for Great Lakes cruises.
The Columbus began selling its cruises mostly to Germans; in 1998 one trip was opened to North Americans. Last year there were three, and when I heard about them, I vowed to be on board for one.
Time and money constraints led me to choose the shortest of the three (each of the other cruises was 10 days). My three-night, four-day jaunt, operated under charter by by the Great Lakes Cruise Company, would embark from Windsor, Ontario, travel up the Detroit River, then into Lake St. Clair, up the St. Clair River to the top of Lake Huron and back, debarking at Detroit. (Because of United States and Canadian maritime laws regarding foreign-owned ships, we had to embark from one country and debark in the other.) The ship was scheduled to stop at Manitoulin Island in Ontario and Mackinac Island, Mich. The cruise was set for the first week of October, just in time, the brochure said, to catch the fall colors at their height.
Originally I thought I would be alone. I booked a double outside cabin with a "partially obstructed view." It was smaller than the other outside cabins and almost $200 less expensive because of the obstruction and reduced size. Several months later, when my sister, Carol, told me she would be able to join me, I had completely forgotten about the small cabin with the partial view.
We boarded the ship on a Saturday in Windsor at pretty Dieppe Park (taking a $30 cab ride from just across the river in Detroit, where we had left our car after driving from Cleveland). We were immediately ushered into the dining room for lunch while our cabins were being prepared. It was the first of many delightful meals: perfectly poached salmon drizzled with cucumber dill sauce, tiny roasted potatoes. German wine and beer flowed freely.
Capable of carrying 418 passengers and a crew of 170, the Columbus is beautifully appointed and well maintained. Numerous times over the short cruise we saw crew members on hands and knees, scrubbing tiny spots off the carpet or sprucing up chrome.
Though small by cruise ship standards, the Columbus has many of the features you would expect on an oceangoing ship: lovely public sitting areas with beautiful views, a cozy wine bar, a small exercise room facing the water, a library, lounge, large dining room, sauna, hair salon, boutique, lots of deck space, a swimming pool, and a good-size hall for shows and the lectures on Great Lakes history that took place throughout the cruise.
By the time the ship left the dock, a light drizzle was falling and the Detroit skyline passed in a soggy blur. Spirits were high, though, as we continued on our way, waving to people on pleasure boats and to crews on freighters that passed close by. Though the cruise was completely booked, and most passengers were on deck for the departure, we didn't feel crowded then or any time later on the trip.
Rain finally drove us to our cabin, where we discovered that our "partially obstructed view" consisted entirely of a 150-person lifeboat-tender perched just outside our cabin. It was possible, we learned through experimentation, to sit on about a square-foot area of one of the berths and catch a glimpse of a six-inch sliver of water.
Otherwise, we were quite satisfied with our cabin, small but still roomy enough to be comfortable. The space had been well planned—there was plenty of storage, a substantial bathroom with vanity and shower, two comfy berths and a table and chair. Other amenities included a minibar, safe, telephone, TV, good reading lights and cabin temperature control. Chocolate-covered strawberries provided a nice touch, as did a fresh flower. My favorite part, though, was the fluffy European-style down-filled comforter and pillow.
We found, in fact, many European touches to the ship—most of them pleasant, a couple inconvenient. The food had a subtle European elegance, and was always well executed. The restaurant opened exactly as scheduled and other events like lectures and the nightly musical entertainment also began promptly. On the down side: although the mostly European crew spoke English, some were more fluent than others, and small misunderstandings often occurred. All prices on board—in the gift shop and on the restaurant's beverage list—were in marks, the cause of endless head scratching among our four table mates.
We missed the predinner cocktail hour that first night, enjoying ourselves instead with champagne in our cabin (we brought our own; there was only the minibar, no cabin service), speculating on the view beyond our lifeboat. Dinner for me was salad with delicate truffle-cream dressing, a delicious couscous-stuffed eggplant and for dessert, a small plate of European cheeses. Not being a meat eater, I was grateful for the daily vegetarian selection at both lunch and dinner.
Later that evening we ventured onto the deck, but a cold wind was blowing with a ferocity that held portents for the coming night. I awoke at 1:30 a.m. to feel the boat pitching and creaking with far more vehemence than I thought possible for a large boat on a lake, at one point slamming down on the water with a thud that set the whole place shuddering.
By morning the storm had passed, the water was calm and we could see sunlight peeking in from around our window shade. Eager to see the sun, I opened the shade, still in my nightshirt, and found myself face-to-face with an equally startled crew member working on the tender.
At noon we anchored off Manitoulin Island near the picturesque town of Little Current, population 1,600. From the water the island appeared almost uninhabited, covered with forests of pine and hardwood just beginning to turn colors. At more than 80 miles long and from 2 to 40 miles wide, Manitoulin Island is often billed as the world's largest freshwater island, though there is apparently a larger island in the Amazon River delta (which may at times, presumably, be brackish, but we're splitting hairs). There are more than 100 inland lakes on Manitoulin, some of them with their own islands.
The island's name comes from "Manitou" or "Great Spirit" in the language of the Algonquin group of American Indian tribes that lived throughout the Upper Great Lakes when the Europeans began to arrive in the 1600's and 1700's. Many descendants of the first Indian inhabitants live today on Manitoulin—about a quarter of the island's 12,000 residents. The economy is based primarily on farming, lumbering, fishing, livestock raising and—increasingly—tourism.
We had signed up for an excursion advertised as an Ojibwe dance and drum group performance, though it proved to be more. After boarding buses in Little Current, we were driven about eight miles to West Bay, also known by its Indian name, M'Chigeeng. There we received a brief introduction to Ojibwe culture by Chief Glen Hare, followed by a tour of the Ojibwe Cultural Foundation, which houses many works by local artists as well as artifacts and museum pieces.
But the high point of the day was a powwow in an outdoor arena nearby. The crisp fall air smelled of pine and wood smoke, and colorful leaves glowed against a sky just beginning to cloud. We watched as dancers, mostly teenage boys and girls, performed their traditional dances accompanied by musicians and singers. Especially fascinating was a hoop dancer, who maneuvered about two dozen hoops to create shapes of things in nature—a bird, a butterfly emerging from its cocoon, a flower. At the end of the performance, the audience was invited to participate, adding a celebratory note to the day.
The ship left Manitoulin just as the sun was setting and sailed through the night to Mackinac Island, which took 13 hours at a deliberately leisurely pace. Once again the day dawned bright and sunny, though a chilly 40 degrees.
We were on the first tender at 8 a.m., when the slanting sun shone golden on that beautiful island.
What many people associate with the island, the name of which is pronounced MAC-uh-naw, are the things that are immediately noticeable to tourists. The lack of motorized vehicles, by order of a turn-of-the-century edict, means that all nonemergency transportation—even for deliveries—is accomplished by horse or bicycle. The island is known for its fudge stands and souvenir shops, and perhaps most famous for the elegant Grand Hotel, the setting for the 1980 movie "Somewhere in Time."
But the island is steeped in history that goes further back than tourism. Its strategic location in the Straits of Mackinac, where Lakes Huron and Michigan join, and only a short distance from Lake Superior, put it at the crossroads for voyageurs, traders and the British and American military. Fort Mackinac, in a stunning location overlooking the water, was built by the British in 1780-81 but was later ceded to the United States.
Because I had visited the island twice during the summer before the cruise and had done the usual tourist activities, we decided to try something a bit different and explore the island on horseback. We stopped by Cindy's Riding Stable, hired horses and a guide and went off for a ride in the cold, clear morning. We sauntered over wooded trails up to the highest point of the island, the ruins of Fort Holmes, from whose vantage point the British had retaken Fort Mackinac during the War of 1812. From there we had a spectacular view of the harbor below and our ship anchored to the east. To the west was the Mackinac Bridge, one of the world's longest suspension bridges, which connects Michigan's lower and upper peninsulas.
Back on the ship, it was lunchtime, with some people in the dining room, and the rest enjoying a lively Oktoberfest on the deck by the pool. Sausages, sauerkraut, pretzels and beer were being savored in the chilly air, while a few hardy passengers played in the heated pool, beers in hand. The ship pulled up anchor just after lunch and sailed under the bridge, the top of the stacks appearing to brush its bottom. We turned around and passed under it again, then headed south to Detroit, where we would get off the next morning.
The all-too-brief cruise was what I had hoped for—relaxing and elegant yet casual, against a backdrop of subtly gorgeous scenery that has long held special appeal for me. The only thing I would do differently were I to sail again on the Columbus: spend the money for a full view, leaving the close encounter with a lifeboat for an emergency.