Great Lakes Adventure

MS Columbus explores four states and two Canadian provinces

By: Judy M. Zimmerman

Looking for a different cruise itinerary close to home this fall? How about a colorful “leaf-peeping” cruise on the Great Lakes, America’s own inland oceans, about one fifth of the world’s fresh water?

In 1997, the German cruise line Hapag-Lloyd built the 410-passenger MS Columbus specifically to navigate the Great Lakes. It is the only ocean liner offering fully bilingual (German/English) fall itineraries that visit four different states, two Canadian provinces and all five Great Lakes.

On a voyage from Chicago to Toronto last fall, I looked forward to practicing my rusty German while taking in the breathtaking scenery: from the rolling dunes and grand vistas of Traverse City to Mackinac Island’s narrow cobblestone streets and Victorian houses to Canadian wilderness areas and thick-forested shorelines.
Though small by cruise-ship standards, the “3-Star plus” Columbus features a smart, contemporary design. Facilities include a swimming pool and a room with exercise machines facing the water, as well as hair stylists, massage therapists and a doctor. A large lounge features exceptionally good cabaret shows and the Happy Band’s bouncy dance music. The public sitting areas and cozy wine bar were particular favorites with passengers, who gathered there at every opportunity.

Each deck on the Columbus features a different bold color scheme, so it’s easy to find your way around. The 134 outside cabins, 63 inside cabins, and eight suites (with balconies) have plenty of storage space and fully tiled bathrooms with large shower stalls. Other amenities include a mini bar, telephone and TV.

On the down side, smoking is permitted in all the cabins. And, on our trip, a gentleman in a wheelchair was not very pleased with the handicapped facilities. Agents whose clients have limited mobility should definitely check on this.

Before boarding the Columbus at Chicago’s Navy Pier, most passengers arrived several days early to take in the Windy City’s majestic architecture and visit its superb Art Institute and Field Museum of Natural History. Shore excursions at Traverse City, Mich., our first port of call, included a beautiful drive through cherry orchards to the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park and a tour of award-winning wineries along the peninsula’s rolling low hills, ablaze with color.

Next, we were off to Mackinac (pronounced Mak-uh-naw) Island, where horse-drawn carriages and bicycles were the only mode of transportation. The town is most famous for its elegant Grand Hotel. The rambling property is one of the world’s largest summer resorts, also famous for providing the setting for the 1980 movie “Somewhere in Time.”

In Detroit, passengers liked the Henry Ford Museum which celebrates the automobile and the genius of ordinary people by preserving the objects they used in their everyday lives. A few of us also visited Ford’s adjacent Greenfield Village, a typical early American town composed of historic buildings brought in and relocated on a village green. Another big highlight of the voyage was a transit through the eight narrow locks of the 28-mile long Welland Canal which links Lake Erie with Lake Ontario.

Each evening our group of 23 congenial Americans sat together at three tables. The waitstaff, fluent in English, served savory dishes with a European flair: braised wild boar leg in herb sauce, pheasant broth with cranberry dumplings and madeira, grilled ostrich steak or roasted suckling pig with radish salad, to name a few.

Of course, there were shortcomings to our Great Lakes journey, but many of them were due to factors the cruise line had no control over. For example, the winds were bitterly cold at times, and the seas became stormy. At one point, we even encountered some unexpected snow flurries. Our trip was the last one of the season, so many of the tourist facilities had closed. And, due to the lakes’ low water levels, some last-minute changes in the itinerary had to be made.

Still, it was worth the inconveniences to experience these great waterways in such a unique manner. And, the cruise went a long way toward helping me accomplish a personal goal to see as many states as possible, by water.


Hapag-Lloyd’s MS Columbus will sail three itineraries on the Great Lakes this fall:

Sept. 17 - 27, Toronto to Chicago, with calls at Windsor, Tobermory, Hilton Beach and Thunder Bay, Ontario, as well as Milwaukee, Wis. Prices start at $3,560;

Sept. 27-Oct. 8, Chicago to Chicago, with calls at Mackinac Island, Marquette and Port Huron, Mich., as well as Thunder Bay, Hilton Beach, Little Current and Windsor, Ontario. Prices start at $3,880;

Oct. 8 18, Chicago to Toronto, calling at Traverse City, Mackinac Island and Marquette, Mich., as well as Hilton Beach, Little Current, Midland and Windsor, Ontario. Prices start at $3,660

Commission: 10 percent