Tips on Cruising The Great Lakes

The big boats are back. Here’s what you need to know.
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The Pearl Mist (Pearl Seas) steams up the Detroit River approaching downtown. // Photograph by Scott West

Melvin Phillips has traveled all over the world — by land and by sea. The 76-year-old Detroit retiree takes at least one cruise a year and has relaxed and sightseen on the big boats everywhere from the Caribbean to the Baltic Sea to the Nile River. But in 2022, he opted for a cruise a little closer to home.

“Great Lakes cruising is just getting started and it’s something new, and I always wanted to get a visitors’ perspective of our stock in Detroit,” he says.

Phillips was a passenger on the Viking cruise line ship that is the largest currently sailing the Great Lakes, but it’s far from alone. Over the past five years, the lakes surrounding Michigan have begun to play host to more and more cruise lines and ships, with more and more coastal cities coming on board as ports of call.

“It was a great cruise,” Phillips says of his eight days cruising four of the five Great Lakes. He started in Toronto on Lake Ontario and from there visited Port Colborne and Point Pelee on Lake Erie before a stop in Detroit. The boat then headed north up Lake Huron to Alpena and Mackinac Island and ended in Milwaukee on Lake Michigan.

Dave Lorenz is the vice president of Travel Michigan and the chair of Cruise the Great Lakes, an alliance built through the Conference of Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Governors and Premiers. He says the alliance was formed in 2018 as a way to help increase tourism, including cruising, on the lakes. “We felt that we need to do more to market the Great Lakes area both to consumers and to cruise lines [as] a great place to take a cruisehe says.”

It worked. Since that initial effort, eight cruise lines have come on board with 11 ships currently in operation, visiting 34 ports of call. The more companies and cities that get involved, the more incentive other cruise lines — and port cities — have to get involved as well, Lorenz says.

“It’s the Burger King-McDonald’s philosophy of ‘Hey, if they’re going to be on that corner, we’re going to be on the opposite corner,’” Lorenz says.

The ship Phillips sailed on might be the largest on the lakes so far — and it’s certainly big at 665 feet long — but it’s still quite a bit smaller than what most people think of when they imagine an ocean-faring cruise ship. That’s because the locks that allow ships to enter from the ocean through the St. Lawrence Seaway can’t hold a boat longer than 740 feet.

And having smaller ships is part of what Lorenz says gives cruising the Great Lakes its own special charm.

The Viking ships, for example, have a maximum capacity of 378 passengers, compared with larger cruise ships on the ocean that carry around 3,000 passengers. “So it’s a much more intimate experience,” Lorenz says.

While they’re smaller, that doesn’t mean they lack the same comforts as other cruise ships. There are pools on deck (with fresh water), dining, drinks, and other amenities. The Octantis, one of Viking’s ships, even has a submarine that can show passengers an underwater view of the lakes they’ve never seen — including, if they’re lucky and conditions are right, an up-close view of shipwrecks.

It also doesn’t mean they’re exactly new. Lorenz is quick to point out that this isn’t the first time cruising has existed on the lakes. It just went a bit dormant for a while.

He points to one ship in particular, the Columbus, a German ship that sailed into the Great Lakes for the first time in 1997. “And that ship is still around and occasionally comes into the Great Lakes. … Most of the cruising was done by international ships, and this was a really unique way for them to offer their travelers a North American experience,” Lorenz says.

The Columbus (it has since been renamed the Hamburg), however, was far from the first cruise ship on the lakes.

In the 1800s, ships were an expedient way to travel great distances in the Great Lakes region, and many big boats offered passengers the opportunity to travel in style. One of the earliest records of such travel is from 1847, when Thurlow Weed, editor of the Albany Evening Journal, set off on a steamer in Buffalo, New York, bound for Chicago for the River and Harbor Convention.

“I am afloat, for the first time, on Lake Erie, in that magnificent steamer, the Empire,” he wrote, referring to the 265-foot ship he was on, which featured a main cabin that was 230 feet long as well as salons for men and women, a bar, a library, and live music. “In ascending to her beautiful saloon we found some three hundred ladies and gentlemen grouped around upon sofas, divans, etc., as luxuriously as on board of our
own splendid Isaac Newton and Hendrick Hudson [other luxurious steamers].”

In 1895, Mark Twain boarded the SS Northland in Cleveland for a trip to Mackinac with Maj. J.B. Pond, his booking agent. Pond wrote, “All that has been said of this fine ocean ship on the Great Lakes is not exaggerated. Across Lake Erie to [the] Detroit River, Lake St. Clair, and the St. Clair River is a most charming trip.”

Cruising continued to climb in popularity, peaking in the mid-20th century. But as other forms of transportation became more popular, cruising died down. The last cruise ship on the Great Lakes was retired from regular service in 1967.

“We had a lot of cruise ships on the Great Lakes back in the 1940s and ’50s and early ’60s, and they were all right here in this vicinity,” says John Jamian, director of port operations at the Detroit/Wayne County Port Authority. “So it’s kind of cool that all these years later they’re coming back to this area.”

Jamian says Detroit currently is a one-day stop for cruise passengers who come into the area, with excursions to places like the Henry Ford Museum and Detroit Institute of Arts.

Cruise the Great Lakes announced in May that they anticipate 25,000 cruise passengers on the Great Lakes this year, a more than 20 percent jump from 2022. On the U.S. side of the lakes, they say cruising will account for $235 million in economic impact from onshore spending and purchased tickets, an 88 percent increase from 2022’s total of $125 million.

As more cities and cruise lines get involved, Lorenz says, prices should start to drop. That’s good news for potential cruisers, as Great Lakes cruises aren’t cheap, starting at around $5,000 and going up to about $10,000 per person (a 13-day Viking cruise in the Amazon and Caribbean, by contrast, currently goes for about $4,000).

Part of the reason has to do with the size of the boats on the lakes. Smaller boats might offer a unique experience, but with fewer passengers in fewer rooms, combined with other factors like a limited cruising season, prices shoot up.

Mark Schrupp, executive director of the Detroit/Wayne County Port Authority, says the agency is currently having a local study done to measure the economic impact on the city. One of his goals, he says, is to have Detroit serve as a launch point for cruises, as it would bring more tourists and more money into the area, with passengers flying in from out of town, staying overnight in hotels, and eating at local restaurants. “When they’re here for just an excursion, they get in at 9 a.m. and they’re usually back on the water by dinnertime.”

Regardless of where the boats are launching from, Phillips says he’s on board. “Overall, I really enjoyed it, and I want to take another Great Lakes cruise in the future,” he says.

What You Need to Know

Cruise Lines

American Queen Voyages, Hapag-Lloyd Cruises, Pearl Seas Cruises, Plantours Cruises, Ponant, St. Lawrence Cruise Lines, Vantage Deluxe World Travel, and Viking

Price Range

Most cruises start at about $5,000 per person and can cost more than $10,000. But there are cheaper options. St. Lawrence Cruise Lines, for example, offers four-night cruises starting at around $2,000.

Length of Cruises

Cruise lengths can range anywhere from a few days to two weeks. (Should you opt to start your cruise in the Great Lakes and end in Argentina, you could take a 70-day Viking cruise, priced at just under $50,000.)

Cruising Season

May-September

For more information, visit cruisethegreatlakes.com.


This story is from the July 2023 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition.