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Great Lakes Cruises: The Ultimate Guide

Are you ready to embark on an extraordinary adventure? Picture yourself sailing through the stunning beauty of North America’s Great Lakes, where breathtaking landscapes and vibrant cities await.

Welcome to the world of great lakes cruises, a unique and lesser-known cruising destination in the heartland of the United States and Canada.

Great Lakes Cruises

Overview of Great Lakes Cruising

Great Lakes cruising offers a unique and enchanting travel experience, combining the serenity of lake voyages with the thrill of exploring some of North America’s most iconic destinations.

The Great Lakes – Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario – collectively form the largest group of freshwater lakes on Earth, covering an area of over 94,000 square miles.

Cruising these majestic waters, one discovers a blend of natural beauty, rich history, and vibrant culture.

Lake Michigan Cruises

A Brief History

Great Lakes cruising has a rich history dating back to the 19th century when steamboats were the primary mode of transportation for both goods and passengers.

These early cruises were not just about leisure but also about connecting remote communities. By the early 20th century, with the advent of more luxurious steamers, the Great Lakes became a popular destination for holidaymakers seeking the elegance and romance of ship travel.

However, the popularity of cruising dwindled with the rise of road and air travel in the mid-20th century. It has seen a resurgence in recent years, with an emphasis on eco-tourism, cultural experiences, and luxury travel.

Typical Itinerary

A typical Great Lakes cruise itinerary might last anywhere from a week to two weeks, providing a comprehensive exploration of the region.

It often starts in a major city like Toronto or Chicago, offering an urban experience before delving into the natural landscapes.

The journey might include stops at Mackinac Island, known for its colonial charm and car-free streets; the rugged beauty of Georgian Bay; the historical richness of Detroit or Cleveland; and the natural splendor of Niagara Falls.

Lake Superior Cruises

Choosing Your Cruise

Selecting the perfect Great Lakes cruise involves considering various factors to ensure the experience aligns with your preferences, interests, and expectations.

This section outlines the key considerations to help you make an informed decision.

Overview of Cruise Lines Offering Great Lakes Cruises

Numerous cruise lines operate in the Great Lakes, each offering unique experiences. Some of the notable ones include:

  • Viking Cruises: Known for luxury and elegance, Viking offers a blend of comfort and cultural immersion.
  • Pearl Seas Cruises: Focuses on providing intimate, small-ship experiences with an emphasis on local culture and history.
  • Victory Cruise Lines: Offers all-inclusive cruises with a focus on American heritage and natural beauty.
  • Ponant: French luxury line known for combining adventure with comfort, offering bilingual (French/English) services.

Each cruise line has its distinct style and specialty, from luxurious, all-inclusive experiences to more adventurous, expedition-style journeys.

Types of Cruises

The Great Lakes cruises can be categorized into several types:

  • Luxury Cruises: Focus on comfort, gourmet dining, and high-end amenities.
  • Adventure Cruises: Ideal for those seeking active exploration, including kayaking, hiking, and wildlife watching.
  • Educational Cruises: Emphasize learning, often featuring expert lectures on history, ecology, and culture.
  • Family Cruises: Cater to families, offering activities and excursions for all ages.

Factors to Consider When Choosing a Cruise

  1. Duration: Great Lakes cruises can range from a few days to a couple of weeks. Consider how much time you want to spend on your vacation.
  2. Cost: Prices vary significantly based on the cruise line, the length of the trip, and the type of cabin. Set a budget beforehand.
  3. Amenities: Look at what each ship offers in terms of dining options, cabin facilities, onboard entertainment, and excursion types.
  4. Port of Call: Each itinerary has its unique charm. Decide if you prefer urban explorations in cities like Chicago and Toronto, or natural escapes like the wilderness of Georgian Bay.
  5. Ship Size: Smaller ships offer a more intimate experience but may have fewer amenities, while larger ships provide more variety in dining and activities but can’t access some smaller ports.
  6. Season: The cruising season typically runs from late spring to early fall. Weather and scenery vary significantly between seasons, affecting your experience.

Making the Decision

After considering these factors, narrow down your choices by prioritizing what matters most to you – be it luxury, adventure, cultural immersion, or family-friendly activities.

Researching and reading reviews can provide valuable insights into what to expect from each cruise line and itinerary.

Destinations and Itineraries

Exploring the destinations and itineraries is one of the most exciting aspects of planning a Great Lakes cruise.

This section provides an overview of key ports of call and popular itineraries, highlighting the diversity and richness of the Great Lakes region.

Key Ports of Call

  1. Chicago, Illinois: Known as the “Windy City,” Chicago offers a vibrant mix of culture, history, and architecture. Must-visit attractions include Millennium Park, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Magnificent Mile.
  2. Toronto, Ontario: Canada’s largest city, Toronto is a melting pot of cultures. Highlights include the iconic CN Tower, the historic Distillery District, and the Royal Ontario Museum.
  3. Detroit, Michigan: The birthplace of Motown music and a hub for American automotive history, Detroit offers attractions like the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Henry Ford Museum.
  4. Mackinac Island, Michigan: A step back in time, this car-free island is known for its colonial and Victorian-era charm, with horse-drawn carriages and the famous Grand Hotel.
  5. Thunder Bay, Ontario: Gateway to outdoor adventures, Thunder Bay is near the stunning Sleeping Giant Provincial Park and the rich indigenous cultures at Fort William Historical Park.
  6. Milwaukee, Wisconsin: With its famous breweries, Milwaukee also boasts the Milwaukee Art Museum and the interactive Harley-Davidson Museum.
  7. Cleveland, Ohio: Home to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the West Side Market, Cleveland offers a blend of cultural and historical experiences.
  8. Niagara Falls, Ontario/New York: Often included as part of a Great Lakes itinerary, Niagara Falls is a breathtaking natural wonder straddling the Canadian and American borders.

Popular Itineraries

  1. Classic Great Lakes: A typical itinerary that covers major cities like Chicago, Toronto, and Detroit, combined with natural wonders like Niagara Falls and scenic locations such as Mackinac Island.
  2. Northern Great Lakes Exploration: Focuses on the northern lakes, including Superior and Huron, emphasizing wilderness areas, outdoor activities, and visits to remote ports like Thunder Bay.
  3. Cultural and Historical Highlights: An itinerary that delves into the rich history and diverse cultures of the Great Lakes, with stops in historic towns and cities known for their museums, art scenes, and cultural landmarks.
  4. Autumn Colors Cruise: Particularly popular in the fall, this cruise focuses on the stunning autumn foliage of the Great Lakes region, with stops in smaller towns and natural areas where the colors are most vibrant.
  5. Special Interest Cruises: Some cruises focus on specific themes, such as culinary experiences, music history (including the Motown sound), or indigenous cultures, offering specialized tours and lectures.

Preparing for Your Cruise

Embarking on a Great Lakes cruise is an exciting adventure, and proper preparation is key to ensuring a smooth and enjoyable experience.

This section covers everything you need to consider and prepare before setting sail.

Best Time of Year for Cruising the Great Lakes

The Great Lakes cruising season typically runs from late spring (May) to early fall (September). The best time for you will depend on your interests:

  • Late Spring (May-June): Cooler temperatures and fewer crowds. Ideal for those who enjoy a more tranquil cruising experience.
  • Summer (July-August): Warmer weather and more onshore activities. Perfect for families and those looking to explore the ports in depth.
  • Early Fall (September): Spectacular autumn foliage. Cooler temperatures return, and the changing leaves offer a breathtaking backdrop.

Essential Items to Pack

Packing for a Great Lakes cruise involves considering the varied weather conditions and activities:

  1. Clothing: Bring layers to adapt to changing temperatures. Include lightweight clothing for sunny days, warmer layers for cool evenings, and a waterproof jacket for rain.
  2. Footwear: Comfortable walking shoes for excursions, and more formal footwear for evenings onboard.
  3. Sun Protection: Sunscreen, sunglasses, and hats are essential, even on overcast days.
  4. Binoculars: For wildlife and scenic viewing.
  5. Daypack: Useful for shore excursions.
  6. Camera: To capture memories. Consider extra batteries or a charger.
  7. Travel Documents: Passport, photo ID, cruise documents, and any necessary visas.
  8. Medications and Health Supplies: Prescription medications, motion sickness remedies, and a small first aid kit.

Pre-Cruise Preparations

  1. Travel Arrangements: Ensure your travel arrangements to and from the port are confirmed. Consider arriving a day early to avoid any stress from potential travel delays.
  2. Health Precautions: Check if any vaccinations or health precautions are recommended. Also, understand the healthcare services available onboard and at the ports.
  3. Travel Insurance: Strongly consider purchasing travel insurance that covers trip cancellation, medical emergencies, and other unforeseen circumstances.
  4. Inform Your Bank: Notify your bank of your travel plans to avoid any issues with using your credit or debit cards.
  5. Cruise Line Check-In: Complete any required pre-cruise check-in procedures online, which may include filling out personal information and selecting dining preferences.

Onboard Experience

The onboard experience is a crucial aspect of any cruise, and on a Great Lakes cruise, it combines the comfort and luxury of cruising with unique regional touches.

This section delves into the various aspects of life on board, from accommodations to dining and entertainment.

Accommodations and Amenities

  1. Cabins: Accommodations on Great Lakes cruise ships range from cozy interior cabins to luxurious suites with private balconies. Most cabins are equipped with modern amenities like en-suite bathrooms, comfortable bedding, and entertainment systems. Consider your budget and preferences (e.g., window vs. balcony) when booking.
  2. Amenities: Despite the smaller size of Great Lakes cruise ships compared to ocean liners, they are well-equipped with amenities. These may include lounges, libraries, fitness centers, and sometimes small pools or spas. The focus is on comfort and providing a relaxed, intimate atmosphere.

Dining and Cuisine Options

  1. Restaurants and Dining Rooms: Most ships offer a main dining room with a range of cuisine options, often incorporating local ingredients and regional specialties. From fine dining to more casual bistro-style meals, there’s typically something to suit all tastes.
  2. Specialty Dining and Local Flavors: Some cruises might offer specialty dining experiences, such as a chef’s table or regional cuisine nights, showcasing the culinary traditions of the Great Lakes region.
  3. Dietary Requirements: Cruise lines generally cater to various dietary requirements, but it’s always a good idea to inform them of any specific needs or allergies beforehand.

Entertainment and Activities Onboard

  1. Daytime Activities: During the day, passengers can participate in a variety of activities, ranging from fitness classes and poolside relaxation to educational lectures about the Great Lakes’ history, culture, and ecology.
  2. Evening Entertainment: Evenings may feature live music, performances, or social events. Many cruises also offer themed nights, game evenings, or cocktail hours for passengers to mingle and enjoy.
  3. Educational and Cultural Programs: To enhance the cruising experience, many ships provide enrichment programs. These may include talks by guest lecturers, local historians, or naturalists, providing deeper insight into each destination.

Family-Friendly vs. Adult-Only Options

  1. Family-Friendly Cruises: Some Great Lakes cruises cater specifically to families, offering activities and programs for children and teens, such as wildlife spotting, educational workshops, and kid-friendly excursions.
  2. Adult-Only Cruises: For those seeking a more tranquil or romantic experience, adult-only cruises or sections of the ship offer a more serene environment.

Great Lakes cruise vacation

Shore Excursions and Activities

Shore excursions are a highlight of any Great Lakes cruise, offering passengers the opportunity to explore the rich tapestry of landscapes, cultures, and experiences that the region has to offer.

This section provides an overview of typical shore excursions and activities available during a Great Lakes cruise.

Overview of Typical Shore Excursions

  1. City Tours: In major cities like Chicago, Toronto, and Detroit, guided city tours are popular. These excursions often include visits to landmark buildings, museums, and cultural sites.
  2. Natural Wonders: Excursions to natural sites such as Niagara Falls, the Apostle Islands, or Sleeping Giant Provincial Park offer breathtaking scenery and opportunities for photography and nature walks.
  3. Historical Sites: The Great Lakes region is rich in history. Tours might include visits to historical forts, colonial towns, maritime museums, or sites significant to Indigenous cultures.
  4. Adventure Activities: For the more adventurous, activities like kayaking, hiking, and biking are often available, allowing guests to experience the natural beauty of the Great Lakes up close.

Cultural Experiences and Sightseeing

  1. Local Culture: Excursions may include visits to local markets, artisan workshops, and cultural performances, offering a glimpse into the region’s diverse cultural fabric.
  2. Culinary Tours: Food and wine tours, especially in regions known for their culinary specialties, offer a taste of local cuisine and are a delightful way for food enthusiasts to explore.
  3. Architectural Tours: In cities renowned for their architecture, such as Chicago, architectural tours can provide insights into the area’s history and development.

Adventure and Nature Activities

  1. Wildlife Watching: The Great Lakes region is home to a variety of wildlife. Excursions might offer opportunities to see animals like moose, bears, and a range of bird species.
  2. Water-Based Activities: Canoeing, sailing, and fishing excursions allow guests to experience the lakes from a different perspective.
  3. Hiking and Biking: Many ports offer access to beautiful trails for hiking or cycling, catering to different fitness levels.

Shopping and Local Cuisine

  1. Local Markets and Shops: Visiting local markets and shops gives passengers a chance to purchase unique souvenirs and handcrafted goods.
  2. Tasting Local Specialties: Sampling local dishes and produce is a must-do activity. Many regions around the Great Lakes are known for specific culinary delights, like fresh fish, cheeses, and wines.

Travel Tips and Practical Information

A Great Lakes cruise is an adventure that requires some practical planning and knowledge.

This section provides essential travel tips and practical information to help ensure a smooth and enjoyable journey.

Navigating Embarkation and Disembarkation

  1. Arrival Times: Check the cruise line’s recommendations for arrival times at the port to ensure a stress-free boarding process.
  2. Baggage Handling: Understand the cruise line’s baggage policy, including limits and handling procedures, to prepare your luggage accordingly.
  3. Check-In Procedures: Familiarize yourself with the check-in process, which may involve presenting travel documents and receiving your boarding information and cabin keys.

Tips for Staying Connected

  1. Wi-Fi Availability: While most ships offer Wi-Fi, it may come with an additional cost or be slower than you’re accustomed to. Check the details before your trip.
  2. Cell Service: Cell service can be spotty on the lakes, so inform family and friends that you might be out of reach at times and plan accordingly.
  3. Emergency Contact Information: Provide the cruise line’s emergency contact information to your family for peace of mind.

Health and Safety Tips

  1. Medical Facilities: Familiarize yourself with the medical facilities available on board and what kind of medical assistance is offered.
  2. Travel Insurance: Ensure you have adequate travel insurance that covers medical emergencies.
  3. Motion Sickness: If you’re prone to motion sickness, bring along remedies or consult with your doctor before departure.

Currency, Tipping, and Other Financial Considerations

  1. Currency: Understand the currency used on board and at various ports, especially since the Great Lakes span both the U.S. and Canada.
  2. Tipping: Learn about the cruise line’s tipping policy and customary practices in the countries you’ll be visiting.
  3. Budgeting: Budget for onshore excursions, dining outside the ship, souvenirs, and other incidental expenses.

Travel Documentation

  1. Passports and Visas: Ensure your passport is valid for the duration of your trip. Check if you need visas for any of your destinations.
  2. Travel Documents: Keep your cruise documents, travel insurance information, and any necessary visas in an easily accessible but secure place.

Packing and Luggage

  1. Packing for Weather: Pack for variable weather conditions, including rain gear and layers for cooler evenings.
  2. Electrical Outlets: Check the type of electrical outlets available in your cabin and bring adapters if necessary.
  3. Essential Items: Don’t forget essentials like medication, glasses/contacts, and any specialized gear for excursions.

cruising the Great Lakes


Embarking on a Great Lakes cruise is an extraordinary journey that offers a unique blend of natural beauty, rich history, and diverse cultural experiences.

From the bustling cities to serene natural landscapes, each day brings a new adventure. Whether it’s the comfort and elegance onboard, the excitement of shore excursions, or the simple pleasure of gazing out at the vast expanse of the lakes, a Great Lakes cruise promises an unforgettable experience.

As you prepare for this voyage, remember the tips and insights provided in this guide, and get ready to create lasting memories on these magnificent freshwater seas.

FAQs on Great Lakes Cruises

1. What is the best time to go on a Great Lakes cruise?

The ideal time for a Great Lakes cruise is during the summer months, from June to August, when the weather is warm and pleasant. Early fall, particularly September, is also a great time to enjoy the autumn foliage.

2. Do I need a passport for a Great Lakes cruise?

If your itinerary includes stops in both the United States and Canada, you will need a valid passport. Always check the specific requirements of your cruise line and itinerary.

3. What kind of wildlife can I expect to see on a Great Lakes cruise?

The Great Lakes region is home to a variety of wildlife, including bald eagles, moose, deer, and various bird species. Marine life includes freshwater fish such as trout and bass.

4. Are there family-friendly activities on Great Lakes cruises?

Yes, many Great Lakes cruises offer family-friendly activities and excursions, including wildlife watching, educational programs, and visits to historical sites and museums.

5. What should I pack for a Great Lakes cruise?

Pack layers for varying weather conditions, comfortable walking shoes, formal attire for special dinners (if required), sun protection, a camera, and any necessary personal items.

6. How long are typical Great Lakes cruises?

Great Lakes cruises typically range from 7 to 14 days, though there are shorter and longer options available depending on the cruise line and itinerary.

7. Are shore excursions included in the cruise price?

This depends on the cruise line. Some include certain excursions in the overall price, while others offer them for an additional fee. It’s best to check with your specific cruise for details.

8. Is Wi-Fi available on Great Lakes cruise ships?

Most ships provide Wi-Fi, but it may come with an additional cost and the signal strength can vary. Check with your cruise line for specifics on availability and pricing.

9. Can I find cruises that focus on specific interests like history or nature?

Yes, there are cruises tailored to various interests, including history, nature, culinary experiences, and more. Research different cruise lines to find one that matches your interests.

10. What dining options are available on board?

Dining options vary by ship but generally include a main dining room, casual eateries, and sometimes specialty restaurants. Menus often feature a mix of international cuisine and regional specialties.

Remember, each cruise line and ship may offer different experiences and amenities, so it’s a good idea to do thorough research or consult with a travel agent to find the best fit for your Great Lakes adventure.