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Cruising the Great Lakes

A cruise tour boat sails past a rocky coastline.

Ethan Meleg/All Canada Photos/Corbis

A sunset cruise on the Georgian Bay in Bruce Peninsula National Park, Ontario, Canada.

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, Minnesota, to Sackets Harbor, New York. 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.

Departure Ports

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.

Shore Excursions

Great Lakes cruises call on major metropolitan cities in Canada and the United States. Milwaukee, Montrealand Quebec City are the biggest ports of call, each with its unique museums and bustling historic quarters. As your cruise travels the canals and far shores of the lakes, you'll also dock in small towns. Stroll among the historic buildings on quaint and car-free Mackinac Island, Michigan; watch for lonesome lighthouses among the islands and rocky coves of Georgian Bay; and visit glass blowers, basket weavers and other artisans in villages up and down the Erie Canal. Cruises on Lake Ontario typically include an optional excursion to Niagara Falls and a mini-cruise on the Maid of the Mist into the spray of the thundering waterfall.

Day and Overnight Cruises

In Chicago, sail Lake Michigan aboard the tall ship Windy. In Toronto, board a Great Lakes Schooner vessel for an afternoon on Lake Ontario. Toronto ferries also run to Centre Island Park, with walking paths, lakeshore picnic spots, and views of the skyline and the endless blue of the lake. In Milwaukee, explore Lake Michigan by day with Milwaukee Boat Line. In Tobermory, on the northern tip of Bruce Peninsula on the Canadian side of Lake Huron, cruises and ferries depart from Little Tub Harbour. The Blue Heron Company cruises to islands and shipwrecks in the clear turquoise shallows of Georgian Bay. From spring to fall, the MS Chi-Cheemaun ferry runs to Manitoulin, the world's largest island in freshwater. On Lake Superior, cruise around Grand Island National Recreation Area, shipwreck-spotting along the way, with Shipwreck Tours. Many overnight trips with St. Lawrence Cruise Lines start in Kingston, Ontario, at the source of the St. Lawrence River on Lake Ontario. Cruises weave through the Thousand Islands archipelago up to Montreal and Ottawa or Quebec City.

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