A Greatest Lakes
Sept 29, 2008 - Jamie Loizou
There are few destinations that the cruising world has yet to get to grips with. Places as off the beaten track as Antarctica, Australia’s Kimberly region, the Rivers of Russia, the beautiful coast of Costa Rica and the Galapagos (all of which can be found in our wonderful new “A Touch of the Unorthodox” brochure) are regularly targeted by cruisers as “must do” destinations. They appear on this list due to outstanding natural beauty, hugely varied culture and because the best way to appreciate them in all their glory is by ship.
Considering North America has been a trail blazer for all types of tourism, it is surprising just how unknown the Great Lakes are as a cruising destination, a destination which ticks all of the above boxes. Consisting of Lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie and Ontario and spanning both Canada and the United States, they form the largest group of freshwater lakes on earth, so there is plenty of water on which to cruise.
I was lucky enough to explore Ontario, Huron, Superior and Erie on a whistle stop tour of this region, not by ship, but by plane – an eight seater King Air 200 to be exact - the only way I could even begin to get an understanding of the Great Lakes in a week. I hopped from city to town to island in quick succession enabling me to appreciate the extreme diversity that this destination boasts.
Fed by Lake Erie through the awesome Niagara Falls and the smallest in surface area at 7,540 square miles, Lake Ontario is the most Easterly of the lakes. Its jewel in the crown and embarkation point for a significant number of cruises is Toronto.
A scaled down version of New York, Toronto is a fantastic city, boasting a huge number of theatres and a buzzing cosmopolitan feel. A feel created by the huge diversity in cultures due to the history of immigration that the city has. In fact, Toronto has a blossoming film industry with many Hollywood movies using the city streets as a double for New York. An obvious attraction is the CN Tower which dominates the skyline and offers astonishing views of the city. A visit early on in your stay is recommended to ensure you get your bearings. Toronto is easy to navigate with excellent and inexpensive public transport and a vast network of underground walkways which the natives use in the cold winter months. The ethnic diversity is reflected in the excellent restaurants which offer fresh local produce and those huge portions only found in North America. There are also wide ranging shopping opportunities. Outside the CBD visits to Casa Loma and Old Fort York will give you a sense of the cities history.
You cannot spend time in Toronto without journeying to Niagara Falls, an hour and a half from the city. Trains are infrequent and the local buses do not take you to the site of the Falls themselves, so an organised tour for around $100 is recommended. The Maid of the Mist will get you close to the action, but you can equally enjoy the power and majesty of this world wonder from the viewing platform.
Second largest of the Lakes with a surface area of 23,010 square miles, Huron is connected to Lake Michigan by the narrow Straits of Mackinac, making them geologically and hydrologically the same body of water. Huron is fed by Lake Superior and its notable features include the North Channel and Georgian Bay.
In the heart of the 30,000 islands and built on the logging industry, Parry Sound is charming port of call. Strangely (but understandably), most cruise ships which arrive here, do so to then allow clients to cruise some of the 30,000 islands aboard the Island Queen river boat which gets even closer to the action and gives the opportunity to see the area with the assistance of the local experts. Flight seeing tours are also recommended, as are the walking trails. If your timing is right you can enjoy the Festival of Sound at the Stockey Centre, which every July attracts orchestras from around the world.
Manitoulin Island – Little Current
Manitoulin Island separates the North Channel and Georgian Bay from Lake Huron's main body of water. It is widely regarded as the world's largest freshwater island. Little Current is a picturesque town at the north of the island, which allows access for cruise ships parallel to what the Canadians call “downtown”, but what might be more fittingly described as alongside the village green. The main reason to visit Manitoulin Island is for the “First Nation” experience. There are several tours which can be taken which focus on spirituality, the arts healing and health. You will enjoy traditional welcomes and ceremonies, learn more about the history of the aboriginal people and have an insight into how they keep their traditional way of live alive in the present day.
Sault Ste. Marie
Located in the heart of the Great Lakes, Sault Ste. Marie sits on the St. Marys River which joins Lake Superior with Lake Huron. The surrounding landscape begins to become ever more wild and you really have a sense of being on the edge of the wilderness. An excellent attraction which gives insight into how the locals are able to access their isolated surroundings is the Canadian Bushplane Centre which has restored seaplanes, firefighting aircraft and light aircraft. If you wish to have a taste of the wilderness in civilised surroundings then the Agawa Canyon train meanders its way through the granite rock formations and mixed forests of the Canadian Shield. Lakes, waterfall and spectacular dams line you route and you may even see wildlife such as bears – I did! It is worth paying to enjoy this wonderful journey from the comfort of the private car where you will enjoy a sumptuous breakfast and lunch.
Mackinac is chocolate box Americana. It has no cars, only horse drawn carriages, miles of white picket fences and thousands of beautiful wisteria trees. Mackinac Island has the charm of an idyllic American town and by bicycle or horse drawn carriage is the best way to get a comprehensive view of the island, although the town area is easy to explore on foot. Attractions include the stunning Grand Hotel and Fort Mackinac, which has a range of live programmes, gives a great sense of the history of the island and offers fantastic views over the harbour.
Largest of the Great Lakes, and the source for the whole system, Superior has a surface area of 31,820 square miles. Due to its depth and northerly location it is also the coldest. Ports of note include Thunder Bay and Duluth.
Thunder Bay is the gateway to the wilderness. Originally a trading post for the fur trade, this heritage is celebrated at Fort William. Headquarters of the North West Company, Fort William was a hive of activity. You can explore the trading post which has recreated the buildings and way of life that many experience in the 1800’s. This is brought to life by the team who play the roles of various people who lived and worked in Fort William, be it a fur trapper, canoe maker or member of the gentry. The area also has the “Niagara of the North”, Kakabeka Falls, which is a 120ft waterfall set in a spectacular rock walled canyon.
Fourth Largest of the Lakes, with a surface area of 9,940 square miles Lake Erie is the warmest of the system due to it being the shallowest. It’s shores boast several large cities including Toledo, Cleveland, Erie, and Buffalo.
Detroit & Windsor
These two cities are separated by the Detroit River which also acts as the border between the States and Canada. Downtown Detroit, although heavily reliant upon the motor trade is not the city you might expect. It has wide tree lined avenues, some fantastic museums such as the Detroit Institute of Arts and second only to New York in theatre seat capacity in the USA. The downtown area can be easily accessed by its monorail system. A huge sporting city, stadiums are dotted around the down town area, where you can watch Ice Hockey, Basketball, Baseball and American Football. Outside of the main city is the Henry Ford Museum housing not only automobiles, but wide ranging history of Americana. On this site is the Greenfield Village which has recreated famous homes of significant people in America’s past which you could easily spend a day exploring.
To the South of Detroit (yes, the South) and linked by both tunnel and bridge is the Canadian city of Windsor. Due to its proximity to the US it was of significant importance throughout prohibition, and a trip to the Canadian Club Whiskey Museum is a great highlight which really informs on this intriguing period. Travelling west of Windsor takes you into Essex County which is where Canadian viticulture is gathering pace. There are several wineries located near to Point Pelee National Park, which is also the place to go for watching the migrating birds.
A charming waterfront and a free bus service from the cruise port allows for trouble free exploration of the town. The peninsula boasts great beaches and warm waters.
A destination that is home to such diversity and one which has not really been exploited by the cruise lines is a rare thing. Aboriginal culture, spectacular scenery, varied wildlife and vibrant cities are guaranteed. The time to travel is in the autumn where you can see the vivid colours of the trees, although cruise itineraries operate throughout the summer months.
In 2010 Le Ponant Cruises will have a Great Lakes programme, although exact details have not been announced. In 2009, new entrant to the market Pearl Sea Cruises will operate a season there.