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It sounds like a dream: a rich historical cruise destination free of political unrest and filled with hospitable people and distinctive local cultures, in a gorgeous setting with fascinating wildlife, right in the heart of North America.
And the cruise industry is definitely sitting up and taking notice. New expedition ships are moving into the inland seas we call the Great Lakes, with many more vessels under construction that could navigate the locks of the St. Lawrence Seaway, the gateway to the lakes.
Eight ships will cruise the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River this year between May and October, including Blount Small Ship Adventures’ Grande Mariner and Grande Caribe; St. Lawrence Cruise Lines’ Canadian Empress; Plantours Kreuzfahrten’s Hamburg; Croisieres M/S Jacques-Cartier’s Jacques-Cartier for active cruisers; Pearl Seas Cruises’ Pearl Mis; and Victory Cruise Lines’ Victory I and Victory II.
Mindful Growth in the Great LakesBut that is only the beginning of the story. Stephen Burnett, executive director of the Great Lakes Cruising Coalition, sees some very high-end expedition lines sailing into the region.
“Ponant is coming in with a new Explorer ship next year, Hapag-Lloyd Cruises will have the new Hanseatic Inspiration here in 2020 and The Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection plans to sail here soon,” he said. “Others, including Silversea Cruises, are thinking about it, and we have a solid base with lines such as Victory Cruise Lines and Pearl Seas Cruises.”
He sees world unrest as a strong factor in driving business to the peaceful region.
“And Cuba opening up was phenomenal for us,” Burnett said. “It means two-season operation with quick repositioning.”
Cruises are based in ports from Chicago and Windsor (Detroit) to Milwaukee, Thunder Bay and Toronto, and can be combined with New England/Canada. However, they are increasingly focusing on the unique cultural heritage and wildlife of the Great Lakes themselves.
“It makes itinerary planning a pleasure because guests can almost become a part of the community,” Burnett said. “With small ships, we can give them special and unique experiences. It’s a lot like Alaska in the 1960s: People on shore are just as curious about the visitors as the visitors are about them, and they have some wonderful exchanges.”
The government of Ontario put a quarter of a million dollars into an exhaustive study of where the region will want to be in 10 to 15 years, as the ports move quickly to provide an authentic experience for visitors in numbers that benefit the lakeside communities and travelers alike.
“We are not totally driven by revenue; social relationships are also crucial to the business,” Burnett said. “We want to be sure the small communities are not overwhelmed and that guests can feel a part of them.”
In addition, the recent Conference of Great Lakes Governors and Premiers brought together representatives from Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Ontario, Pennsylvania, Quebec and Wisconsin, creating a group to guide the future development of the port infrastructure.
“This could be a game-changer,” Burnett said. “We labored in the wilderness for a long time. We used to go to Seatrade and just talk to one another, then gradually the cruise lines became interested. I used to travel with a Michelin road map and a marine chart to educate them on geography and access.”
Burnett estimates that up to 30 ships could sail during the Great Lakes season, which runs from May to October.
Great Lakes Culture and PortsAlthough the five Great Lakes are lined with some strikingly beautiful countryside, it seems to be the distinct cultures that particularly draw visitors.
“There is a lot of interest in First Nation peoples,” Burnett said. “We have spent a lot of time telling them, ‘This is your story, not our story. We want you to tell the truth and not to be shy about the dark side. We want people to understand the reality of your history.’”
In addition to the storytellers sharing onboard cruise ships, Burnett suggests attending “a truly authentic powwow” on Manitoulin Island in Ontario.
And additional ports with distinctive ethnic experiences are being developed. Burnett credited Bruce Nierenberg, president and CEO of Victory Cruise Lines, as an innovator who is working with the destinations creatively.
Nierenberg, whose Victory Cruise Lines is adding a second ship, Victory II, in the Great Lakes, says that the cruise industry doesn’t spend enough time on port development.
“And these are exciting ports,” Nierenberg said. “There’s a natural tourniquet in the St. Lawrence that limits ship size, so there can be real interaction between travelers and the residents. The charm of small ships is that you can do unusual things for a few.”
Among the special experiences awaiting cruisers are local musical talent onboard; meeting locals from Scandinavian, French, Dutch, Polish and German communities; visiting the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame in Wisconsin; walking iconic Mackinac Island, Michigan; and dancing to the music of Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Although the typical Great Lakes cruiser is an older traveler, Nierenberg sees the region as a great family destination, and Victory’s building plan may well include one with dining and accommodations designed to attract that market.
Nierenberg’s second ship, Victory II, launches this year and will expand the Great Lakes experience beyond the usual routes, sailing up into Lake Superior.
“The usual practice is to stick a toe into Sault Ste. Marie (split between Michigan and Ontario) so you experience all five Great Lakes, but we are going all the way to Thunder Bay, Ontario, as our turnaround port,” he said. “We are giving guests a complimentary overnight there and complimentary air between Thunder Bay and Toronto to take care of airlift.”
He expects the new itinerary, which launches June 10 and includes three July cruises, to require education, likening it to a former program in his career when he designed an itinerary to sail to the Bahamas’ Out Islands.
“We struggled the first season with the Bahamas, and then for five years everything sold out instantly,” he said.
Victory II will provide experiences such as reliving life in the ancient Quincy copper mines of Lake Superior and attending the harvest of the Cherry Fest in Door County, Wis., and the Blueberry Festival in Marquette, Mich.
To bring people onboard the first season, Victory is offering two-for-one rates on the nine- and 10-day cruises.
“If we can get the trade behind it, it will move fast,” Nierenberg said.