"I didn't know cruise ships stopped at Mackinac Island," an Ann Arborite said.
by Cynthia Furlong Reynolds
From the September, 2019 issue
She'd just returned from a visit, where she'd been surprised to see "what looks like a brand-new ship there."
"Cruising on the Great Lakes isn't new. It was very popular from the 1940s through the 60s," says Chris Conlin, president of Conlin Travel's Great Lakes Cruise Company. "In the days before our highway system was developed, cruise ships held 300 passengers and provided transportation from Detroit or Toronto to Chicago. I have old ads that advertise expensive and luxurious Great Lakes cruises."
America's most extensive water system, the five Great Lakes contain more than 1,000 islands, so the ships offered both an effortless mode of transportation and plenty to see. As America's highways improved and car sales skyrocketed, however, the cruise industry on the Great Lakes dried up.
Conlin credits Hapag-Lloyd, a German global shipping company, with single-handedly revitalizing the Great Lakes' water-bound tourist industry. In 1997, the company launched a cruise ship specifically designed to slip into the lakes from the Atlantic, narrower and with straight up-and-down sides to fit though the locks and canals of the St. Lawrence Seaway. The maiden voyage carried Germans and German-speaking Europeans on a leisurely tour of all five Great Lakes. Soon afterwards, a French shipbuilder and another German company began chartering seven- to fifteen-day cruises between late May and mid-October. A few shorter cruises are also available now.
"And now is the perfect time to climb aboard a cruise ship," says Conlin. Founded in 1998, Great Lakes Cruises now books passage on ships from Germany, France, Canada, and the U.S. All have experts on board to discuss the natural wonders the ships sail past as well as the lakes' history and indigenous cultures.
"The Great Lakes cruises are easy to get to and very safe--which is a major selling point these days," Conlin says. "It seems crazy to be passing Detroit on board a ship where people deal in euros. But these are international ships with international crews. Their
clientele are the same people who enjoy river cruises in Europe: an experienced cruiser, often retired, with the time to take longer trips."
U.S. destinations stretch from Niagara Falls to Duluth. Some pull into obscure, scenic ports while others dock outside cities, so visitors can tour the Miller Brewery in downtown Milwaukee, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, or Detroit's Henry Ford Museum.
Even the largest ships cruising the lakes are minnows by oceanic standards. The Victory I and II carry 200 passengers and crews of eighty-four. The Pearl Mist's boasts 100 staterooms with private balconies, while the Grande Caribe and Grande Mariner carry only eighty-four guests. And recently, Conlin flew to Germany to tour the newest ship destined for Great Lakes waters. The Hanseatic Inspiration, currently under construction, promises top-of-the-line comfort and facilities for 175 guests.
It's a sure sign that these cruises are here to stay--during the region's warmest five months, at any rate. Once the fall foliage fades, these ships head for warmer waters.
Prices drop after Labor Day, so bargain seekers can find accommodations at one-quarter the prices of the peak season. Most start around $3,000 at this time of year.
"In mid-October all these ships will sail down the St. Lawrence Seaway and pick up passengers on the East Coast," Conlin says.
From there they'll head "to the Caribbean, South America, or across the Atlantic to the Mediterranean and Baltic."
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