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Voyage of Discovery
Jan, 2005
Until recently, North America's chain of Great Lakes had been off the cruising charts for over three decades. The five huge, freshwater bodies could enclose the entire surface area of the United Kingdom. Lake Superior alone covers more square miles than Scotland, while the smallest, Lake Ontario, is slightly larger than Wales. Linked together by canals, rivers and straits to the Atlantic Ocean, the chain forms a 2,000-mile navigable waterway for ocean-going ships.

Spanish, French, and English explorers came this way, and fur traders, prospectors, missionaries and farmers followed: Camaraderie and conflict developed with the Native Americans, resulting in European domination and the Indians largely relegated to reservations.

Their ancestors and cultural traditions live on today and are shared with visitors.

Poets and writers, captivated by the region's natural beauty, wrote of the majesty of Niagara Falls, the lovely wooded islands of Georgian Bay, steep cliffs fringing Lake Superior and sand dunes piled up along the shores of Lake Michigan.

Abundant natural resources generated waterborne trade in coal and iron ore, lumber and grain, carried by giant, 1,000-foot lake ships whose handsome, split island design exists nowhere else in the world. A gracefully-rounded pilot house up forward is separated by hundreds of feet of cargo space from the aft superstructure, machinery and tall stack.

To provide continuous navigation from westernmost Lake Superior eastward to Montreal and Quebec; the Soo Locks tamed the St. Mary's River flowing into Lake Huron; the Welland Canal bypassed Niagara Falls to link Lakes Erie and Ontario; and the St. Lawrence Seaway provided safe passage through the river's white rapids.

Cruising the Great Lakes was a fashionable holiday from the mid-19th century until the mid-1960s. Giant side-wheel paddle steamers linked Toronto, Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit and Chicago with Georgian Bay resorts, Michigan's Upper Peninsula, Isle Royale's natural wilderness and serene, traffic-free Mackinac Island.

One by one, the early 20th century steamboats were retired and the seasonal trade died away, leaving only very small ships carrying fewer than 100 passengers.

Over 30 years passed before the first seagoing cruise ship, Hapag-Lloyd's 410-passenger C. Columbus, ventured into the lakes. Built to the lock requirements of the Welland Canal, the slimline ship's overhanging bridge wings swivel inward to clear the chamber walls.

Offering late summer and early autumn cruises, the Columbus attracts a mixture of German- and English-speaking passengers, the latter growing but still much in the minority. Language is no problem as the Austrian, German and Filipino crew speaks good English, and the menus, daily programmes, lectures, entertainment and shore excursions are all bilingual. However, on some sightseeing trips during my 10-night September cruise from Toronto to Chicago, I found the local guides so enthusiastic about speaking German that the English version got short shrift, and on board, the German lecturer was better informed that the Scottish-American one.

The ship's atmosphere was traditional and genteel. The nationalities mixed well, and at breakfast and lunch in the lido buffet I often shared a table with English-speaking Europeans and joined them on coach trips and site visits.

The German-built Columbus was completed in 1997 for Hapag-Lloyd, a long-standing firm that also operates the highly-rated Europa and expedition ships Hanseatic and Bremen. The 205 cabins are of average size and 142 are outside with large picture windows, roomy en-suite facilities, bathrobes, hairdryer, TV, telephone, private safe and stocked mini bar with typical charges.

The main lounge seats all passengers for the nightly cabaret entertainment: dancing to a five-piece Ukrainian band and informal talks. The restaurant, operating with a single sitting at assigned tables, offers a very well-prepared international menu with lots of local fruit and vegetables; fresh fish when available and a nightly German specialty such as wild pheasant, venison and duck. The lido buffet's multiple island stations reduces queuing, and caters to European, English and North American tastes. One festive picnic on deck featured an Oktoberfest menu with complimentary steins of German beer.

A cozy wine bar, observation lounge with comfortable cushioned rattan chairs, card room, library, shop, gymnasium, sauna, outdoor pool, and ample deck space on several levels round out the facilities. No one I spoke to remotely missed a casino or Broadway-style entertainment.

Prior to joining Columbus in Toronto, many embarking passengers took a side trip to Niagara Falls. Then, sailing in the middle of the night, we were well positioned to have an all-day transit of the Welland Canal where the lift from Lake Ontario to Lake Erie is nearly four times that of the Panama Canal. On the upward passage, giant ore and grain carriers filled the multiple locks high above. We passed under lift-bridges and exchanged greetings with visitors watching from observation platforms. On either side; Niagara Peninsula's farms and vineyards abutted the busy waterway.

Exiting into Lake Erie in the late afternoon, Columbus sailed overnight, arriving at sunrise to follow the Detroit River to tie up at Windsor on the Canadian side. Most booked the all-day trip to the Henry Ford Museum and Deerfield Village, just west of Detroit.

This fabulous collection features scores of antique and classic automobiles, including the presidential limousine in which John F. Kennedy was shot; car advertising posters; videos of early car and caravan travel; railway locomotives; aircraft; farm equipment; and kitchen appliances. Outside, Deerfield Village recreates an American town bordering on a village green with examples of residential houses spanning three centuries; an operating steam railway and locomotive turntable; open touring cars and buggies to ride; and a paddleboat to cruise the small lake.

Later that same day, we sailed past residential communities lining the St. Clair River into Lake Huron. Turning into Georgian Bay, the ship threaded among dozens of islands to anchor off Midland, Ontario, to witness a demonstration of aboriginal Canadian culture and traditions in an enclosed Huron Village.

Docking on the Canadian side of Sault Ste. Marie, separate sets of Canadian and American locks tame the St. Mary's River rapids flowing from Lake Superior into Lake Huron. During the call, many passengers elected to ride the scenic Algoma Central Railway to a picnic site and hiking trails deep in beautiful Agawa Canyon, where autumn leaves were just beginning to show their colours. I opted for a coach outing to a provincial park bordering the north shore of Lake Superior for a walk in the sand dunes and a wooded hike up to a majestic waterfall.

Cruising west across Lake Superior, we passed the well-named Sleeping Giant, an island shaped to resemble a reclining Indian, to dock at Thunder Bay, a huge grain port where Canada's prairie province wheat harvests transfers from rail to `laker'. Ashore we visited Old Fort William, a former British fur trading post and fortification and the unusual rock formations in 0uimet Canyon.

At the southwestern corner of Lake Superior, Duluth was our first US entry point, and we passed through immigration, a lengthy process happily not repeated in the subsequent US ports. The city's Depot Museum, housed in a chateau-style, late- 19th-century stone station, offers a fascinating rail collection as well as a dramatic video showing a huge snowplough operating at speed to clear the tracks then derailing in a spectacular pileup. The railway station serves a scenic lakeshore tourist line, while the city's landscaped waterfront has a three-mile-long promenade, a beautiful rose garden and a traditional, steam-powered laker.

Leaving Duluth, we enjoyed a sunny day on the lake before retracing the route along the St. Mary's River, through Soo Locks into Lakes Huron and Michigan.

Going ashore at Mackinac Island, everyone's favourite call, we walked the narrow streets of a white wooden 19th century town where cars have been banned since before 1900. One can circumnavigate the entire island on a scenic footpath in about two hours.

On the final afternoon, Columbus sailed under the soaring Mackinac Bridge linking the state of Michigan with its Upper Peninsula, then cruised south overnight to Chicago. We awoke to see the rising sun reflect off a majestic skyline that easily matches Manhattan's, with classic early skyscrapers set against a backdrop of soaring glass-and-steel towers.

Columbus tied up at the Navy Pier, a combination Mecca, Coney Island, Crystal Palace, stained glass museum and festival marketplace stretching out into the lake; a most exciting `Welcome to America' disembarkation.

Author: Ted Scull
Featured in: Cruise Traveller
Date: Winter 2005

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