Ships, schooners, ferries — take your pick when it comes to cruising lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie and Ontario. Once a major waterway for trade and transport, the Great Lakes today are enjoying a revival as a freshwater cruising destination. Start planning your trip with our Great Lakes cruising guide.
The lay of the lakes
The Great Lakes stretch eastward from Duluth, Minn., to Sackets Harbor, N.Y. Taken together, they contain 20 percent of the earth's fresh water and form a natural border between the United States and Canada. The mighty St. Lawrence River connects the lakes to the Atlantic Ocean, and smaller waterways link the lakes to each other. All told, the lakes have approximately 35,000 islands — home to everything from nature preserves to tiny townships. In places where the connecting rivers make navigation difficult — such as at Niagara Falls, which connects Lake Erie and Lake Ontario — canals and locks ease the way. The American side has 4,530 miles of shoreline, hence the nicknames North Coast and Third Coast. The lakeshore geography ranges from wide sandy beaches to rocky, forest-clad bluffs. You could start your cruise in a metropolis and sail to tiny hamlets and hidden coves within hours. An online Great Lakes cruising guide is found on the Great Lakes Cruising Coalition's site. For news and articles about lake ecology and tourism, check out the Great Lakes Information Network.
Great Lakes cruises depart from both sides of the border. Toronto is the main departure port on the Canadian shore. Cruises that start or end in Montreal or Quebec City pass through the Thousand Islands Archipelago, where the St. Lawrence River starts in Lake Ontario. Detroit, Duluth, New York (connecting to the lakes via the Hudson River and Erie Canal) and Chicago are the departure ports on the U.S. side. Some itineraries also end in Warren, R.I., on Narragansett Bay, after slipping across Long Island Sound from New York.
Cruise companies and itineraries
The Great Lakes Cruise Company offers nearly 30 trips a year with 10 itineraries. Their ships transport 66 to 100 passengers and are specially designed to travel through the narrow canals and locks of America's historic waterways. This company also runs trips up the St. Lawrence River on a replica steamboat, and you can book four of the same itineraries with Blount Small Ship Adventures. Prices on the shared itineraries are the same with both companies. The eight-day Magical Lake Michigan trip through the Soo Locks to Lake Superior in a double-occupancy standard cabin starts at $2,479 per person. The longest tour is 16 days and starts at $4,999 for the same cabin class. This Great American Waterways itinerary traverses four of the lakes from Chicago to New York. All cruises include on-board history and science lectures.