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Cruising the Midwest
August 23, 2006

The Great Lakes are a choice destination, thanks to boat tours

A massive freighter towers over the Grande Mariner as the 183-foot-long cruise boat slips past the Motor City skyline en route to Mackinac Island.

By the time the Grande Mariner and its 65 passengers reach Chicago four days after seeing Detroit, they will have traveled through the Erie Canal and four of the five Great Lakes.

It's a journey of contrasts, with stops in reviving Rust Belt cities and quaint tourist towns, passing heavily industrialized stretches of the Detroit River and miles of unspoiled coastline.

The route is rich in history and natural beauty. And the trip is one of dozens of multiday vacation cruises planned this year for the Great Lakes, from weeklong Lake Michigan coast excursions to fall leaf-peeping tours that stretch into the far northwest reaches of Lake Superior.

"It's just beautiful travel and beautiful scenery." says Roy Keith, the Grande Mariner's captain, who for the last decade has taken cruise ships onto the Great Lakes.

Largely dormant since the 1960s as international air travel and tropical cruises increased in popularity and affordability, the Great Lakes cruise tradition began a revival in the mid-1990s.

For travelers accustomed to the massive cruise ships of the Caribbean and Mediterranean, the Great Lakes boats are modest. The pace is easygoing, passengers get to know the crew on a first-name basis and the scenery along the way - best seen from the top deck -- is much of the attraction.

Tour options on different lines vary widely. Smaller boats carry up to 18 passengers on cruises that skirt Lake Ontario. And the MV Columbus - a 423-passenger ship designed especially for the Great Lakes - offers 11-day cruises between Toronto and Chicago that spend time in all five Great Lakes during prime fall color season.

The Great Lakes and their connecting channels form the largest fresh-surface-water system an the planet. Travel promoters say the Great Lakes region, well-known for its recreational boating, stunning beaches and summer vacation towns, has the potential to attract more cruise ships.

The Great Lakes Cruising Coalition, which since 1997 has worked to promote the industry, said it would like to see about 60 of the about 130 cruise boats that can get to the Great Lakes via the St. Lawrence Seaway offer tours.

Stephen Burnett, executive director of the coalition, says Great Lakes cruises have a broad appeal. "You return home with a great sense of where you've been traveling," Burnett says. "You didn't just get off the ship and go shopping."

David Runk (AP)


Eight cruises in September and October, with various itineraries on the Erie Canal, the Saguenay, Hudson River and Lake Champlain; www.acclsmallships.com or 800-556-7450.

Fall foliage cruises aboard the MV Columbus from Chicago to Toronto, Oct. 11, and roundtrip from Chicago, Sept. 30, with stops in Marquette and Mackinac Island, Mich., and various Ontario ports; www.greatlakescruising.com
or 888-891-0203.

French Canada and the Great Lakes tour, Sept. 11, from Chicago to Quebec City; www.cruisewest.com or 888-851-8133.

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