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Touring the Great Lakes
Winter 2005/2006

Kevin Griffin explores the wonders of cruising around the Great Lakes.

In1842 Charles Dickens, on his grand tour of North America, crossed the Atlantic in Cunard's first ship, the Britannia, still less than two years old. This we know, as he wrote in great detail about his rough Atlantic crossing in his American Notes. But what is forgotten is that in the same year Dickens also cruised around the Great Lakes, steaming across Lake Erie enroute to Cleveland and Buffalo. Of this trip he recorded: "She was a fine steamship, 400 tons burden, named the Constitution, with very few passengers aboard and had bountiful and handsome accommodation."

In 1895 Mark Twain, whilst travelling on his own tour of America, boarded the newly-built North Land in Cleveland. Bound for Mackinac Island and Duluth, Twain wrote: "All that has been said of this fine ocean ship on the Great Lakes is not exaggerated." The North Land had been built to undertake the round voyage between Buffalo and Duluth in a week and her owners, the Northern Steamship Company, became the first to introduce seven day cruises. The seven day cruise would not reach Miami until 1927. The motto of the Northern Steamship Company was "In all the world no trip like this," which was changed (only briefly) during the Spanish-American War to "No Spanish cruisers in our waters."

75 years ago Baroness Emma Orczy, author of The Scarlet Pimpernel, added a view from the 20th century: "We both loved our trip over the Great Lakes onboard the CPR steamer Assiniboia, such a fine boat, such comfortable sleeping accommodation, and such excellent food as ever was. There were 250 passengers and it was among these that I became acquainted with one lady who was a teacher in a girls' school in Toronto, who had never read or had even as much as heard of The Scarlet Pimpernel. This, I am sure, sounds a fearfully conceited remark to make; but, as a matter of fact, I never had met anyone to whom the words 'Scarlet Pimpernel' just meant nothing at all. I found the experience most refreshing."

The Baroness went on to say: "How beautiful those Great Lakes are! The Captain was - as CPR officials invariably were towards us - most kind; he invited us to go up on the bridge when we passed through the locks and where at St Marie we could see the rapids and the wonderful iron bridge, which on a pivot carries the heavy CPR trains to the USA side."

The Assiniboia that Orczy travelled in stopped cruising 40 years ago. For the first three-quarters of the 20th century, the Great Lakes were a hive of cruising activity, but in the last quarter they emptied of cruise ships and became a scenic waterway for cargo. But thanks to more recent developments, one can once again follow in the path of Dickens, Twain and Orczy and cruise across the Great Lakes.

American Canadian Caribbean Line and Clipper Cruise Line came along first in the 1980s and introduced Great Lakes cruising with smaller ships, carrying plus or minus 100 passengers each. These two American lines, joined by the Canadian companies St Lawrence Cruise Lines and Heritage Cruise Lines, with even smaller ships, now offer many dozens of Great Lakes cruises every summer. The style on these ships is casual and there are no formal nights. Their attractions are rather their small ship homeliness and of course their ports of call.

Big ship cruising finally returned to the Great Lakes in 1997, when Germany's Hapag-Lloyd Cruises introduced the 420-passenger Columbus. This pioneer of modern Great Lakes cruising decided to design a vessel that could navigate the St Lawrence Seaway system, whose 15 locks allow ships to sail 1,000 miles above Montreal. The Columbus has special features, such as swivelling bridge wings and indented lifeboats, so that the ship's sides are flush when she passes through the Seaway locks and the single lock transit into Lake Superior at Sault Ste Marie. She also offers attractions that small ships do not, such as nightly entertainment, two dining venues, a beauty salon, a boutique and all the usual services that big ship cruisers have come to expect.

Longer and wider ships have cruised the Great Lakes in the past, but at 14,903 gross tonnes, the Columbus is still the largest to have done so as she begins her ninth season in 2006. Although a large ship by Great Lakes standards (she also does a World Cruise each winter), she is not a mega-ship. The 78-foot beam limitation to reach the Great Lakes means that none of today's big cruise ships can pass through the locks above Montreal, so that Great Lakes cruise ships carry only 100's of guests as opposed to 1,000's.

Whether it is pristine wilderness or big city buzz that attracts you, you will find both in the Great Lakes. For just north of those huge population centres of Montreal, Toronto, Detroit and Chicago is the wilderness that stretches all the way to Hudson Bay and the Arctic Ocean. On the borders of that wilderness are the Great Lakes.

At the entrance to the Great Lakes, between Ontario to the north and New York state to the south, lie the picturesque Thousand Islands; one of the prettiest river passages in the world. A land of small villages and summer cottages, it also has its mansions and even a castle. Six-story high, 120-room Boldt Castle has lain abandoned for over a 100 years, since the death of the woman it was being built for, Louise Boldt, whose husband owned New York's Waldorf Astoria Hotel.

Further to the north, the absolute beauty of Georgian Bay is what inspired the paintings of Canada's most famous painters, the "Group of Seven" (actually 11), which included A Y Jackson, Tom Thomson and A J Casson. Also in Georgian Bay lies Manitoulin, the largest freshwater island in the world, whose native population has preserved its culture and still performs ceremonies that are enjoyed today by visiting cruise ship passengers.

Mackinac Island at the top of Lake Michigan, known as "the Bermuda of the Great Lakes," was once a fur trading post and later a British fort. To this day it still bans automobiles and the only way to get to the island's famous Grand Hotel is by horse-drawn carriage or on foot. Even though America achieved independence in 1776, Mackinac remained British until 1795 and Detroit until 1796.

Lake Superior is the largest body of freshwater in the world - the Great Lakes contain 20 per cent of the world's fresh water. At the foot of this huge lake, where the American and Canadian locks lie at Sault St Marie (the "Soo Locks") one may take a scenic rail journey into the wilderness of the Agawa Canyon. Lake Superior is deep, and the air is more bracing than on the other lakes. Many of the locals prefer to swim in smaller inland lakes, where the water is warmer.

As well as nature, there is the big city culture of America's "Second City" at Chicago, Canada's largest city in Toronto and the original "Motown" that is Detroit. Shop in Chicago's "million dollar mile" or enjoy its fabled museums. Savour the international bustle of Toronto and visit quaint Niagara-on-the-Lake, once Canada's capital, or the famous nearby falls. Tour the Ford Museum at Detroit and see the chair in which Abe Lincoln was assassinated or, perhaps more to your taste, the Bremen - the first plane to fly westbound across the Atlantic in 1928. These three cities, plus Montreal, have the international airports that make getting to your Great Lakes cruise that easy.

Great Lakes itineraries are varied and you can decide what best suits you. The Columbus offers three Great Lakes cruises in 2006, in the autumn. The first, Toronto to Chicago from 20th to 30th September, starts at £1,310 in an inside four-berth cabin, £1,600 in a two-berth inside cabin or £1,880 in a two-berth outside cabin. A second cruise, a round trip from Chicago on 30th September through to 11th October, begins at £1,435 in a four-berth inside and £2,065 twin- berth outside; while the third, Chicago to Toronto on 11th to 21st October starts at £1,350 in a four-berth inside or £1,915 in a twin-berth inside. All fares are per person cruise-only, flights not included.

Among the six smaller ships cruising the Great Lakes offerings include three, five, seven, eight, eleven and 14-night cruises with the opportunity of visiting all the lakes, sailing into Lake Superior, circumnavigating Lake Michigan, traveling the Erie Barge Canal or cruising to the mighty Saguenay.

The biggest of the small ships is Clipper's Nantucket Clipper (108 passengers), which at the beginning and end of the summer season offers two 14-night Great Lakes and French Canada cruises between Quebec City and Chicago, starting at £2,760 with a porthole or £3,125 with a window, both per person - double occupancy. The inbound voyage leaves Quebec on 24th July and the outbound voyage from Chicago on 11th September. Meanwhile, American Canadian's ships (100 passengers) offer a choice of ten-day cruises between Chicago and Duluth, the American Lakehead, starting at £1,300 per person in twin outside cabins. The same company's seven-night Lake Michigan Getaway cruises sail from Chicago's famous Navy Pier and start at £830 per person in a twin outside, with eight departures between June and August.

St Lawrence Cruise Lines's Canadian Empress (66 passengers) offers a dozen six-night cruises between Kingston and Quebec between May and October, starting at £1,295 per person in an outside twin. A five-night Bay of Quinte and Thousand Islands cruise between June and October in Heritage Cruise Lines' Georgian Clipper (18 passengers) starts at £815 per person in an outside double.

A number of UK tour operators offer cruises around the Great Lakes,
as listed below:
The Cruise People Ltd.
Tel:020 7723 2450
Web: www.cruisepeople.co.uk

Frontier Travel Reservations
Tel: 020 8776 8709
Web: www.frontier-travel.co.uk/canada/

Mundy Cruising Ltd
Tel: 020 7734 4404
Web: www.mundycruising.co.uk

Recommended Web Sites:
Great Lakes Cruise Company

Great Lakes Cruising Coalition

Hapag-Lloyd Cruises

For more information visit www.petersommer.com

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