Great Ships for the Great Lakes
The Orion, the latest vessel to cruise the Midwest, brings a new level of luxury.
March 21, 2004
First it dodged ice floes and weathered stormy seas in Antarctica. Right now,
it's motoring up the Amazon River.
But the next high-adventure destination for the new luxury expedition ship
Orion might come as a surprise.
It's the Great Lakes.
The Orion, completed just four months ago in Germany, will become the seventh,
the newest and the most luxurious ship to cruise the Great Lakes this season.
Think of the Orion as a floating version of a Mercedes S class, equipped for
the wild. The 106-passenger ship is fit for adventure with a specially
reinforced hull to endure arctic ice, the latest stabilizers to cope with rough
seas and lots of high-tech communications gear.
But for passengers, the 337-foot Orion is close to regal with 24 large outside
staterooms and 29 suites -- each with a panoramic view, a sitting room and a
marble bathroom. Those who have been on it already also report the meals are
"I recommend it absolutely, and I have done a lot of cruising," said Geoff Le
Plastrier, a real estate developer from Newport Beach, Calif., who took an
His raves were echoed by other Orion passengers.
The Orion joins five other cruise ships on the Great Lakes for the 2004 season,
which runs roughly from June through early October.
This will be a record-setting season, said Christopher Wright, director of the
Ontario-based Cruising the Great Lakes, a coordinating agency for these inland
"The ships will make 63 cruises and are expected to carry 7,360 passengers," he
said. If his estimates are correct, it would represent an all-time high for the
recent era of Great Lakes cruising, which began in 1997.
One ship that has sailed in northern Lake Huron for the last half-dozen years
will not be running this season, however. The tiny 18-passenger Georgian
Clipper succumbed to the downturn in the economy, Wright said.
But on the upside, Wright said the ships that remain will stop at a number of
new ports on lakes Huron and Superior in Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and
Ontario. (See story, Page 2F.)
Admittedly, for sheer exotica of Orion cruise destinations, Mackinac Island,
even with its horse-drawn carriages and turn-of-the-century charm, can't
compare with the likes of McMurdo Station in Antarctica or the famed opera
house in Manaus, deep in the Amazon jungle.
But the slim Orion, with its seven decks, is perfect for slipping through the
canals and narrow locks in the Great Lakes and for taking in some fascinating
sights that even Midwesterners might have missed.
Passengers will see Niagara Falls; Greenfield Village (docking in Windsor);
Indian tribal dances on Manitoulin Island in Lake Huron, the world's largest
island in fresh water; the 224-year-old British fort on Mackinac Island or, at
Whitefish Point, the bell from the Edmund Fitzgerald, made famous by the Gordon
Lightfoot song in the 1970s.
The Orion will make a series of 7-night cruises, starting in late June and
running until October. Sailing between Montreal and Chicago, the Orion will
make stops in all five Great Lakes. Prices start at about $4,500 per person.
Passengers on the Orion's first cruises raved about the ship, its staff and
"I have to put to put these guys right on top," Le Plastrier said. "It has an
extremely professional crew and the ship is run like a first-class hotel, which
The ship's crew is German and the service staff is Armenian.
Passengers noted the lecture hall is able to hold every passenger, unusual for
a ship that small. What's more, the talks can be piped into the staterooms if
you decide to stay in your cabin.
"The food was terrific," said Susan Berke, of Bethlehem, Conn. "It was a mix of
American and European with some Indonesian influences. Lots of fresh fruits and
vegetables. And, weather permitting, lunch was served on the deck." All meals
are served with complimentary wines and beer.
"It was very, very nicely done," said Berke, who took the ship's maiden cruise
from the Canary Islands to the southern tip of South America.
Other ship amenities include cable TV, Internet access, a spa with exercise
equipment, a masseuse, a three-piece band that plays nightly and first-rate
lecturers and naturalists to answer every question.
Susan Tomley, a corporate attorney from Santa Cruz, Calif., loved her trip to
"The Orion was great. It's a small ship. You get to know the other passengers.
And everything was pretty luxurious," she said.
by Gerry Volgenau
Free Press Special Writer