Cruising the
Eighth Sea


The Pearl Seas Cruises ship Pearl Mist docked in Milwaukee, a turnaround port for the line’s Great Lakes sailings.

The Pearl Seas Cruises ship Pearl Mist docked in Milwaukee, a turnaround port for the line’s Great Lakes sailings.

The Pearl Seas Cruises ship Pearl Mist docked in Milwaukee, a turnaround port for the line’s Great Lakes sailings.

It’s been 10 years since Milwaukee built a cruise pier, not at its industrial port where the cargo ships dock, but on its public waterfront a short walk from its then-new Santiago Calatrava-designed art museum.

Over the years, few ships called. But the payoff arrived in 2019 when Pearl Seas Cruises designated Milwaukee a turnaround port on the west end of its Great Lakes cruises.

“We expect at least a threefold increase in cruise activity into the Port of Milwaukee this year,” port director Adam Schlicht said. “Last season, we had three cruise ships come in. This year we have 11, and we anticipate even more going forward in 2020 and beyond.”

It’s a sign of something that’s been talked about for decades but that many doubted would ever arrive. The Great Lakes are emerging as that rarest of unicorns: a bona fide new destination for the cruise industry.

The potential is tantalizing. The five lakes form the largest group of freshwater seas on Earth, with dozens of underexplored ports of call. They are within driving distance of much of the heartland and a quick flight for the rest of the country.

The Calatrava building at the Milwaukee Art Museum with its brise soleil extended.

The Calatrava building at the Milwaukee Art Museum with its brise soleil extended.

The Calatrava building at the Milwaukee Art Museum with its brise soleil extended.

Passengers can tour historical industrial sites, stroll through summer produce markets, see art collections that rival those on the East and West coasts and enjoy a succession of seasonal festivals.

Cooled by the lakes, Midwest summer temperatures can be the equal of those in the winter Caribbean. And if you’re concerned about overtourism, that’s not likely to be a problem here.

Stephen Burnett, executive director of the promotional organization Great Lakes Cruising Coalition, said, “Not only is this the last uncruised region of the world, with fabulous renaissance cities and wonderful urban and suburban and wilderness areas, but it also [remains] largely untapped.”

Burnett added, “We’re now at the point where we have [cruise ship] owners making good money up here.”

At least six oceangoing companies are sailing the Great Lakes this year or have plans to do so in 2020.

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The Victory Cruise Lines ship Victory I at the pier in Detroit on a Great Lakes cruise.

The Victory Cruise Lines ship Victory I at the pier in Detroit on a Great Lakes cruise.

The Victory Cruise Lines ship Victory I at the pier in Detroit on a Great Lakes cruise.

In addition to Pearl Seas Cruises, these include Victory Cruise Lines, now in its first year of ownership under the American Queen Steamboat Co.; the French line Ponant; another French line, CroisiEurope; Germany’s Hapag-Lloyd Cruises; and the new luxury entrant, the Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection.

Other lines that offer Great Lakes itineraries include Blount Small Ship Adventures and Germany’s Plantours Kreuzfahrten.

Not only is the supply growing, travel advisors say demand is growing, as well.

Vicky Garcia, COO of Cruise Planners, said, “The Great Lakes and U.S. rivers, we’re getting a lot of calls about it.”

One of the chief attractions for advisors is the relatively high pricing. Per diems are in the neighborhood of $500, which is comparable to prices on some luxury and expedition cruise lines.

Owners say the pricing reflects high pilot costs and docking fees as well as the absence of economies of scale on the small ships that sail the lakes.

The passenger profile for someone taking a Great Lakes cruise is generally older and driven by a curiosity about a less-traveled part of the country.

John Waggoner, president and CEO of the American Queen Steamboat Co., said, “We’re catering mostly to American clientele who still haven’t seen most of America, who don’t want to take a flight to go over to Europe or elsewhere, are trying to keep the hassle factor low and still see something that they haven’t seen. And very few of our guests have had the opportunity to even see the Great Lakes.”

Passengers sometimes don’t live all that far away. Jay Marshal, who is semiretired, lives in a rural area near Greens Fork, Ind., about a four-hour drive from where he boarded a Victory Cruise Lines ship in Chicago earlier this summer.

He and his wife had already visited several ports on the cruise, including Lake Huron’s Mackinac Island and Cleveland.

“We wanted to be out on the waters on the Great Lakes,” Marshal said. “That was the part that appealed to us.” Marshal said that over the years, he and his wife had planned their travels so that when they were younger they went on more strenuous trips, such as a vacation to India and a river cruise on Myanmar’s Irrawaddy River.

Now, they’re taking trips that don’t require such long flights. The other traditional customer for Great Lakes cruises comes from Europe, particularly France or Germany. Schlicht said, “They’ve been coming in September and October, more out of a desire to participate in the fall seasonal turn, the Indian summer and the fall foliage.”

The Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island is one of the prime attractions on a Great Lakes itinerary.

The Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island is one of the prime attractions on a Great Lakes itinerary.

The Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island is one of the prime attractions on a Great Lakes itinerary.

Greeters at the Port of Cleveland welcome passengers on a Great Lakes cruise. TW photo by Thomas Stieghorst

Greeters at the Port of Cleveland welcome passengers on a Great Lakes cruise. TW photo by Thomas Stieghorst

Greeters at the Port of Cleveland welcome passengers on a Great Lakes cruise. TW photo by Thomas Stieghorst

Open for ocean cruises

The St. Lawrence Seaway, completed in 1959, connected the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes, enabling oceangoing ships to reach major cities like Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland. Along the way, the Welland Canal enables ships to bypass the Niagara Falls, yet limits their width to 78 feet.

The St. Lawrence Seaway, completed in 1959, connected the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes, enabling oceangoing ships to reach major cities like Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland. Along the way, the Welland Canal enables ships to bypass the Niagara Falls, yet limits their width to 78 feet.

The St. Lawrence Seaway, completed in 1959, connected the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes, enabling oceangoing ships to reach major cities like Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland. Along the way, the Welland Canal enables ships to bypass the Niagara Falls, yet limits their width to 78 feet.

The basic Great Lakes itinerary is a seven- or 11-day cruise that starts in Eastern Canada (Quebec City or Montreal on the St. Lawrence River or Toronto on Lake Ontario) and sails west to Chicago or Milwaukee on the southern end of Lake Michigan.

Ships then turn around in Wisconsin or Illinois waters and reverse course to Canada.

Along the way, passengers stop in some big cities (e.g., Cleveland and Detroit), some smaller towns (Muskegon on Michigan’s west coast and Sault Sainte Marie on the state’s Upper Peninsula), some quaint tourist spots (Mackinac Island, where lakes Huron and Michigan converge) and some nature attractions (Canada’s Parry Sound and Midland, both on Lake Ontario).

The Ontario College of Art and Design University in Toronto, a frequent port of call on Great Lakes cruises.  TW photo by Thomas Stieghorst

The Ontario College of Art and Design University in Toronto, a frequent port of call on Great Lakes cruises. TW photo by Thomas Stieghorst

The Ontario College of Art and Design University in Toronto, a frequent port of call on Great Lakes cruises. TW photo by Thomas Stieghorst

The cruises also pass through the locks of the Welland Canal, which bypasses Niagara Falls, to which they typically offer a day excursion.

Hapag-Lloyd Cruises, which calls the Great Lakes “an eighth ocean in the forests of North America,” plans 14-day cruises on its new Hanseatic Inspiration beginning in June. Ritz-Carlton also has plans to cruise the Great Lakes with its second ship, which is expected to be ready in 2021.

Cruises make full use of lakes Ontario, Erie, Huron and Michigan, though none currently venture into the largest Great Lake, frigid Lake Superior, which is home to Thunder Bay, Ontario, and the twin ports of Duluth, Minn., and Superior Wis., but can be foggy in the summer.

Except for days of “scenic sailing,” cruising is generally done at night, with port calls and excursions during the day.

One surprise for many first-time Great Lakes passengers is the number of quality art museums on their route.

Start with the Chicago Art Institute, with its permanent collection of nearly 300,000 works, including popular favorites such as Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks,” Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” and Georges Seurat’s pointillist masterpiece “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.”

Ninety miles to the north, the Calatrava building at the Milwaukee Art Museum folds and unfolds its 217-foot sun break, like a giant set of wings responding to the wind and sun.

Detroit boasts not only the Detroit Institute of Arts, featuring Diego Rivera’s mural depicting Detroit industry, which surrounds its central marble court, but also the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in nearby Dearborn, which is chock full of planes, trains and (of course) automobiles.

An exploded view of a Model T at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich. TW photo by Thomas Stieghorst

An exploded view of a Model T at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich. TW photo by Thomas Stieghorst

An exploded view of a Model T at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich. TW photo by Thomas Stieghorst

Cleveland’s museum scene ranges from classic (the Cleveland Museum of Art) to contemporary (the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame), the latter a two-minute shuttle ride from the cruise pier.

All the major stops also include city tours that show off the architecture, history, civic amenities, food halls, sports venues, neighborhoods and iconic attractions of their cities. In Cleveland, for example, passengers can see the jukebox-shaped tombstone of famed rock ’n’ roll DJ Alan Freed.

In Milwaukee, excursions may take visitors inside the mansion of 19th-century beer baron Frederick Pabst or down the European-influenced Old World Third Street Historic District of shops and bars.

“A lot of the tours we have planned highlight the contemporary urban experience in Milwaukee,” Schlicht said.

Eager for cruise business, some cities have created host committees that organize greeting parties for disembarking passengers, who are made to feel welcome as they board excursion trolleys for tours.

Passengers also get access to festivals, such as Montreal’s International Fireworks Competition in June and July or Milwaukee’s 11-day Summerfest, which draws 800,000 people annually to Summerfest Park, a stone’s throw from the cruise pier.

Another part of the Great Lakes heritage is the gritty factories and warehouses that speak to the nation’s industrial past.

“I was just amazed at the industry up here,” American Queen’s Waggoner said. “This is where the Industrial Revolution started, with railroads and cars and canals.”

Guests can also tour Ford’s River Rouge factory complex in Dearborn or Milwaukee’s Harley-Davidson motorcycle museum.

After Victory Cruise Lines makes its 10 p.m. departure from Detroit, one of the first sights on the way to Cleveland are the blast furnaces and fiery chimneys of the U.S. Steel plant on Zug Island, which cast an orange glow across the night sky.

But industry can sometimes prove to be too much of a good thing. Waggoner said he was dismayed at having to board Chicago passengers at the city’s cargo port on Lake Calumet, miles from downtown and surrounded by commodity transit sheds.

So he and an investment group bought a Lake Michigan excursion boat operator, and starting next year, Victory will operate from a dock at Navy Pier, a prime downtown Chicago tourist magnet at the southeast end of the city’s popular Miracle Mile shopping district.

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Poncho-clad tourists get a closer look at Niagara Falls, a popular excursion on Great Lakes cruises. TW photo by Thomas Stieghorst

Poncho-clad tourists get a closer look at Niagara Falls, a popular excursion on Great Lakes cruises. TW photo by Thomas Stieghorst

Poncho-clad tourists get a closer look at Niagara Falls, a popular excursion on Great Lakes cruises. TW photo by Thomas Stieghorst

The Midwest ports of call are not all urban, however. In Ontario, Great Lakes cruises call at Parry Sound, site of a Unesco biosphere reserve. The lakes are lined with forests of birch, maple and balsam fir.

Itineraries also include one of North America’s great natural wonders, Niagara Falls, with its flow of 6 million cubic feet of water per minute drenching visitors on tour boats that take passengers close to the great cataract.

In the early 20th century, dozens of steamboats plied routes between the major cities of the Great Lakes. But the region was only opened to ocean cruising in 1959, after the development of the St. Lawrence Seaway via the Welland Canal.

Serious efforts to attract cruise tourism started in the late 1990s with the formation of the Great Lakes Cruising Coalition.

“Those were challenging days,” the coalition’s Burnett said. “It was hard even getting on the radar in those days. We’d chat to a lot of the owners and the planners and the routers and the charterers, and sometimes their eyes would glaze over.”

Burnett said he realized that he had to become a geography teacher before he could sell the area as a cruise vacation.

“So we built, very carefully, the foundation so we were able to talk knowledgeably about the challenges of distance and also about the opportunities as we would migrate a ship from lake to lake,” Burnett said.

The effort got an unwelcome but real boost from 9/11 and later attacks in Europe, which discouraged some people from cruising overseas and left the Midwest, by contrast, looking like a refuge.

“And it’s not [only] the customers, it’s the owners,” Burnett said. “I’m getting calls from owners with ships in places that are wonderful and exotic but somewhat chancy at the moment — you know, Strait of Malacca, Indian Ocean, Red Sea, Southeast Asia, some of the wonderful places.

“I think their customers are saying to them, ‘We’re not too happy traveling there,’” Burnett said.

A Great Lakes cruise goes from Lake Ontario to Lake Erie through the Welland Canal to bypass Niagara Falls. TW photo by Thomas Stieghorst

A Great Lakes cruise goes from Lake Ontario to Lake Erie through the Welland Canal to bypass Niagara Falls. TW photo by Thomas Stieghorst

A Great Lakes cruise goes from Lake Ontario to Lake Erie through the Welland Canal to bypass Niagara Falls. TW photo by Thomas Stieghorst

A major chokepoint for cruise industry growth on the Great Lakes is the Welland Canal, which can accommodate ships no wider than 78 feet.

That has generally limited traffic to vessels of only a few hundred passengers.

The largest cruise ship on the Great Lakes, Plantours Kreuzfahrten’s Hamburg, carries just 420 passengers.

Waggoner, for one, sees that as a strategic advantage.

“We’re in a position where it has very limited the number of vessels that can come on the Great Lakes,” he said. “We think that gives it a lot of appeal because it’s not everybody who gets to say, ‘Hey, I got to go on the Great Lakes, and this is what I got to see.’”

Burnett said the seaway has no plans to build a wider canal, as was done in Panama recently. But he sees another path to growth.

“I think what will happen is the proliferation of high-quality expedition ships will find their way through the Seaway,” Burnett said.

He said that as long as a ship has no overhang that can bang into the side of the lock or is outfitted with retractable bridge wings, it can have a beam of exactly 78 feet.

“So the really smart planners are building right to the edge with slab sides and no overhangs,” Burnett said. “That is how they will get the larger ships into the Great Lakes.”

He is also optimistic that greater profits will stimulate a virtuous cycle of attention by new operators.

“We have been talking to a number of new cruise lines … trying to interest them in the Great Lakes, and we got sort of a thumbs up of interest,” Burnett said. “And there are a whole bunch of others who we are trying to work with. So I think in the next five or six years we’ll see that start to accelerate quite a bit.”

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