Cleveland comes into view as Victory I sails across Lake Erie.
Cleveland comes into view as Victory I sails across Lake Erie. (photo by barbara winnerman)

Learning that small passenger ships were again sailing the Great Lakes from Toronto to Chicago was, for me, akin to discovering a new American coastline had been found.

"Last year, there were 30 voyages through the Great Lakes carrying 6,000 passengers, and that is expected to double in 2019," says Heidi Allison, president of CruiseComplete.com which publishes information on the cruise industry. "The Great Lakes Cruising Coalition was recently formed to promote the destination, and is in talks with eight significant cruise lines about introducing ships onto the Great Lakes."

A lighthouse stands along Lake Huron.
A lighthouse stands along Lake Huron. (photo by barbara winnerman)

The "new" destination is a revival of what was once a popular route for tourist ships, but their harbor-hopping visits ceased in the mid-1950s when stringent safely regulations were introduced. However, the earliest records indicate passenger carrying ships had been plying the waters of the Great Lakes as early as the mid-1800s.

There are several reasons for the resurgence in passenger travel on one of the world's largest surface freshwater ecosystems in the world, often referred to as an "inland sea."


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The itinerary is appealing to older, experienced travelers seeking a new adventure, one free of the hassle of changing accommodations every few days. Also, the major embarkation and debarkation ports of Chicago and Toronto are very convenient compared to most foreign destinations.

The small size of the passenger ships on the Great Lakes (200 guests or less) means activities from dining to tours are handled efficiently, and that it is easy to find your way around the vessel.

Finally, for those timid about sea travel, land is visible most days.

One firm that has been sailing the Great Lakes is Victory Cruise Lines, which is owned by the American Queen Steamboat Company.

"We are thrilled to be offering itineraries that explore the Great Lakes and French Canadian waters," says John Waggoner, company chairman and CEO. "There is no better way to experience the unique culture, beauty and diversity of the area than by a cruise in a region that our customers have been requesting for years."

The 550-foot freighter Valley Camp, which sailed the Great Lakes from 1917 to 1966, is now a museum dedicated to the history of shipping in the region
The 550-foot freighter Valley Camp, which sailed the Great Lakes from 1917 to 1966, is now a museum dedicated to the history of shipping in the region (photo by barbara winnerman)

For all those reasons, I booked a cabin on the Victory I, a Victory Cruise Lines ship, for an 11-day journey to experience this developing destination for myself.

The July cruise originated in Toronto, a destination unto itself, and many passengers arrived early to explore the city on their own. Throughout the first night, the Victory I passed through the eight locks of the 27-mile Welland Canal, ascending 327 feet from Lake Ontario up to Lake Erie and the tiny, colorful port town of Port Colborne, Ontario. In the morning, a motor coach took us to Niagara Falls, and a thrilling, soaking ride on The Maid of the Mist which motored through the rainbows created by the cascading water to the base of the 188-foot Horseshoe Falls.

The ports of Cleveland and Detroit do not normally enter into a conversation about cruises, but Victory I made worthwhile stops at each city, docking only a short walk from the center of the downtown areas.

In Cleveland, a guide aboard "Lolly the Trolley" chauffeured us past city sights. Everyone on board was amazed at the vitality of this flourishing metropolis, and what we saw became a topic of conversation the remainder of the voyage. Stops included the 1901 Wade Memorial Chapel, constructed in honor of Cleveland industrialist Jeptha Wade. The interior walls, ceiling and even the floor are decorated with glass mosaic tile designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany. The centerpiece is the awe-inspiring 9-by-7-foot stained glass window, "The Flight of Souls."

Directly on the Cleveland's Lake Erie waterfront, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is the architectural masterpiece of I.M. Pei, who designed the building to resemble his vision of a turntable record player. As a result of the upbeat music at every exhibit, everyone entering and leavening was smiling.

In Detroit, the Victory I docked in front of the Renaissance Center, a cluster of seven gleaming towers and the headquarters of General Motors. In the morning we toured the sprawling Henry Ford Museum with its eclectic collection of American historical artifacts such as the chair Lincoln was sitting in when he was shot, the concept car that led to the Mustang, and the first presidential limousine that was a horse-drawn carriage used by Teddy Roosevelt.

In the quaint harbor town of Little Current on Manitoulin Island, Ontario, we were welcomed at the Ojibwe First Nations reservation where the Catholic priest demonstrated how the indigenous island culture is interwoven with Christian beliefs. An example was the deerskin vestment he wore, with tassels on the fringe, and a baptismal font made from the shell of a turtle. Even the church was built to resemble a teepee.

Sault Ste. Marie, in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, was where we toured the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society Museum and learned there have been more than 6,000 shipwrecks on the Great Lakes, with a total loss of life of 20,000. Nearby, the 550-foot freighter Valley Camp that had sailed the lakes from 1917 to 1966 is now a museum dedicated to the history of Great Lakes shipping.

A display about the Edmond Fitzgerald that went down in a storm in 1975 with the loss of all 29 on board (you know the story thanks to Gordon Lightfoot) included the radio transmissions from the captain, who was commanding his last voyage before retiring.

The final port of call before sailing onto Lake Michigan and disembarking in Chicago was Mackinac Island, Michigan, on Lake Huron. We discovered automobiles have been banned since 1900 in favor of horses and bicycles. A tour on a carriage ride revealed there was one doctor in town, but three veterinarians to care for the 600 island horses. Even funerals are still held using a horse-drawn hearse.

"Residents refer to tourists as 'fudgies,'" our carriage driver told us, remarking on the habit of visitors to flock to the 17 island fudge shops to taste free samples.

Mackinac is known for the magnificent 1887 Grand Hotel, boasting the largest front porch in the world at 660 feet, and supported by a promenade of colossal columns. It is also now known for a magnificent lunch buffet, which was included in the cruise fare.

Two cruise days were spent sailing. As we navigated through a parade of islands, we continually passed the American flag flying at island homes on our port (left side) and Canadian flags on our starboard, and past a procession of lonely lighthouses.

There were onboard talks about the history of the Great Lakes, and a trio of musicians entertained with a different musical theme each night. Five-course dinners were an opportunity to add a pound of weight a night. Throughout the cruise, the 80 international crew members pampered each guest with individual attention.

By the end of the voyage, the Victory I had sailed onto each of the five Great Lakes, and visited major metropolitan cities and tiny island towns in the United States and Canada. It was a truly enjoyable journey.

Contact Jim Winnerman at bawinnie@earthlink.net.