By Barbara Ramsey Orr
There are so many ‘ifs’ and ‘maybes’ these days that planning anything is problematic when everything can change in a heartbeat. But it helps, for sanity’s sake, to make plans and to commit to things, even if you have to uncommit later. If you are longing for a cruise experience, this may be the perfect time to book while generous cancellation policies are in place and cabins are available. And why not choose to do a cruise close to home, on our own world famous Great Lakes?
You won’t be alone. Viking Cruise Lines is already taking bookings for its 2022 Great Lakes sailings, and some cabin categories for the first sailing on the luxurious expeditionary small ship, the Viking Octantis, in May 2022, are already sold out.
Sailing on the Great Lakes can be surprising. One passenger, who went out on deck for her morning coffee, feared that the ship had gone badly off course. She was sure they must be way out at sea, as there was no sign of land. Then she gasped as a massive freighter slid quietly by in the morning mist.
It is easy to underestimate the expanse of these waters. The lakes are vast – with 10,000 miles of coastline covering an area twice as large as Pennsylvania. The Lakes even have a tide, and are pristinely beautiful, generously dotted with islands, and rich with boreal forest, white sand beaches, rocky bays and the unique “flowerpot islands”. Freighters, both salties and lakers, are frequently sighted. (‘Lakers’ are ships that only sail within the Great Lakes, while ‘salties’ also do ocean sailing) Wildlife is abundant and there is a depth of culture and indigenous history that is fascinating.
The pandemic called an abrupt halt to what should have been the most successful season ever for Great Lakes cruising. When life returns to normal, however, the Great Lakes is prime for cruise tourism, and will be particularly attractive to Canadians. The growth of expeditionary ships within the industry – small, agile and equipped with helicopters, zodiacs and submarines – means that many cruise lines are eyeing the Lakes. These new vessels are perfect for exploration here, being Seaway-compliant and equipped for adventure travel.
According to Stephen Burnett, head of the Great Lakes Cruising Coalition, many of the major lines are seriously looking to place boats here in the near future. Ponant has already launched the elegant Le Champlain for sailings on the Lakes, and if the world rights itself, she will resume cruises next season startng May 2021. The Viking Octantis will deploy in 2022 for its Great Lakes itineraries.
The traditional ships that have been doing these cruises, and regularly sailing at full capacity – the Victory I and II, the Pearl Mist, and Blount Small Ship Expeditions’s Grande Mariner and Grande Caribe – will presumably be back if the season is able to restart then. They are not as elegant or upmarket as the newcomers, but offer an excellent experience.
For Canadians who love to cruise, a sail around the world’s largest fresh water lakes, or along the seaway is a brilliant choice for several reasons.
One attraction is size. Geography has made it impossible for large cruise ships to enter the Lakes. Only smaller ships can navigate the seaway which imposes height and width restrictions. There will never be mega-cruisers in the Lakes. The largest would carry, at the most, 400 passengers while the majority will remain in the 100 to 200 passenger size.
Another persuasive advantage is safety. There are many places in the world that are insecure, both in terms of political unrest over tourism and infectious diseases. The Great Lakes, straddling two countries, five states and two provinces, rest in an area that is politically stable and highly effective in controlling the spread of COVID-19. For Ontario residents, getting to a port would involve a short drive or a very short flight, less intimidating than an international flight.
This pandemic-related delay will have allowed time for enhanced plans for safe and healthy sailing practices. The smaller ships also make it easier to keep passengers at a good distance from each other and to ensure that cabins and main rooms are sanitized.
There’s also the novelty factor that makes these cruises attractive. Frequent cruisers are always looking for unique destinations and new activities. The Great Lakes cruise offers different experiences from the typical cruise and offers them with a commitment to local communities and to careful husbandry of the lakes.
The range of ports and excursions is world class. From architectural river expeditions in Chicago and visits to its world famous Art Institute of Chicago, to the Victorian charm of a horse-drawn carriage ride in the ‘carless’ tranquility of Mackinac Island, there are many entertaining diversions along the shores. Milwaukee has the Harley-Davidson Motorcycle Museum as well as its famous breweries. Ann Arbour, Detroit and Toronto all have much to offer. Guests can kayak in the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve of Georgian Bay, hike through unspoiled forests, explore the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and transit engineering marvels like the Welland Canal and the Soo Locks. There’s the grandeur of Niagara Falls and the pleasure of vineyards in Niagara wine country. There are several pre- and post-excursion possibilities for passengers too. Add on Montreal, Quebec City, Gaspe, Iles de le Madelaine, and the Maritime provinces and you have a world class trip.
But perhaps not surprisingly, the most sought after experiences are those that come from visits to small Canadian towns and interactions with First Nations communities.
Bruce O’Hare, president of Lakeshore Excursions in Little Current on Manitoulin Island, explains that the First Nations clans are working in concert to design port activities that will spotlight their culture, art and history while positioning themselves to benefit from the economic influx.
“We have great partnerships with local communities,” says O’Hare. “Especially with our First Nation people. They are full participants in the planned activities, sharing in profits and co-designing the excursions. Local businesses, bus companies, small tour boats, restaurants, all benefit from the visitors.”
According to Burnett, there has been excellent international cooperation between states, provinces and cities to design the best port experiences and to provide top quality adventure possibilities.
“These lakes will never be a bargain cruising destination,” warns Burnett. “Because of the small size of ships and limited passenger numbers, as well as the large distances to be covered in sailing these vast waterways.”
Despite those pricey fares, the Great Lakes are set to become the next hot place to cruise. They are having their moment, and this could be the perfect time to become a Lake cruiser.