Sizzling fillets and red wine. An outdoor table above the ship’s fantail. A hot sun tempers the cool breezes of early evening and turns the ship’s wake into a molten silver stream touching the pink-and-red sunset. Dark waters ripple as far as the eye can see.
The Caribbean? The Mediterranean? Not exactly. We were on Lake Erie, believe it or not, midway through Haimark Travel’s luxury Great Lakes cruise aboard the Saint Laurent. The 210-passenger, small-ship cruiser offers summer trips with boarding and disembarkation points in Chicago, Toronto and Montreal.
There is much that’s unexpected on a cruise of the Great Lakes (in our case, some of it unexpectedly frustrating, but we’ll get to that). Millions of people, after all, live near the shores of these massive inland oceans, but typically, get only a glimpse from a beach or a waterfront, if that.
And as maritime historian Fred Stonehouse says, “The Great Lakes are among the best and most unexplored cruising grounds in the world.”
Our cruise on the Saint Laurent was to sail from Chicago on an evening in mid-July. But a few weeks before sailing another itinerary, the ship hit a concrete abutment in the St Lawrence Seaway, injuring more than 20 passengers and crew and requiring several days of repairs.
Haimark cancelled one subsequent trip and informed us a few days before we were to depart, that we would be bussed from Chicago to Mackinac Island, at the northern tip of Michigan, to meet with the boat. As it turned out, the Saint Laurent didn’t make that connection either. There was another night in a hotel and one more buffet dinner, at which Haimark announced it was chartering a plane to fly us to connect with the ship in Detroit. About a dozen people opted to drop out and fly home from Detroit.
For those who stayed, there were partial cash refunds, generous discounts for future cruises, and money to spend on board and six days of living it up on the Saint Laurent.
Before setting sail from Detroit, we visited the nearby Henry Ford Museum, an immense trove of American artefacts with a focus on history and technology. Then, finally cruising, we settled into a routine of eating, drinking and shore excursions while travelling from Lake Huron through the Georgian Bay (sometimes considered the sixth Great Lake), on to Lakes Erie and Ontario, and finally, the St Lawrence Seaway and Montreal.
A brief stop at Manitoulin Island, in Lake Huron, was a highlight – at a First Nations settlement, enthusiastic young people in tribal costume gave a spirited dance performance, and we toured a gallery of Native art. Niagara Falls was a “wow” moment, particularly for first-timers, and was paired with a winery tour in nearby Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. (Rest assured that our ship itself bypassed Niagara Falls in favour of the nearby Welland Canal!) We disembarked at Montreal, near the historic old city.
Aboard ship, the open top deck offered a panorama of lakes and shore and the cool lake breezes that are familiar to those of us who live nearby. Non-Midwesterners were surprised at the deep blue of the water, likening it to the Caribbean.
Our cabin was tight but comfortable and functional with a full bathroom, large closet and much-appreciated under-bed storage. Small ships like this don’t offer the extravagantly large rooms found (for a price) aboard the mega-ships that host thousands. But that also means you’re not elbow to elbow with that cast of thousands for every meal and activity.
Our favourite onboard dining spot was the Cliff Rock Bar & Grille. At first we were drawn by the open-air seating but soon “warmed” to its unusual tabletop grilling scheme. Diners select from beef or fish options that are brought to the table raw, atop a small square of rock heated to 460°C . Use that hot rock to grill your food, and every forkful can be done just as you like it.
Some of my favourite times, though, were spent on deck, sipping coffee in the morning or a gin-and-tonic in the afternoon as we sailed Lakes Huron and Erie, then passed through the Thousand Islands archipelago at the mouth of the St Lawrence, at the east end of Lake Ontario. Watching birds slowly cross the emerging brilliance of sunset was an active meditation, calming and energising at the same time.
I’m a Midwesterner and a Great Lakes lover, but this experience gave me a new pride at the beauty and legacy of this immense natural resource. There were few Midwesterners aboard. Instead, passengers came from California, Connecticut, Florida, Kentucky, New York, Texas and Washington state, among other places. Haimark managing partner Tom Markwell says the Great Lakes cruises have been popular with French and German tourists as well.
Cruising the Great Lakes was popular in the early 1900s, when passenger ships sailed all five lakes. The Depression put a halt to that, and occasional attempts to revive the industry were unsuccessful until recent years. Now, four companies offer cruises with embarkation points in the US and Canada, attracting tourists from the US and Europe.
“These routes sail in the wake of great explorers and missionaries across vistas of unspoiled natural beauty, offering travellers a way to experience native culture in a very personal manner and calling at ports nearly forgotten by time,” said Stonehouse, who was an expert lecturer aboard our cruise. “The most overwhelming aspect to many is the sheer size of the lakes themselves. They are truly inland seas, and many people say, “I had no idea this even existed.’” – Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service/Terry Colby