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Cruising the Great Lakes

America’s “inland seas” are a hidden treasure.

Pearl Mist
Courtesy Pearl Seas Cruises

Published Mar 31, 2023 12:09 AM by Jack O'Connell

(Article originally published in Jan/Feb 2023 edition.)

Ready to cruise again? You bet! So were we. And so Barbara and I set sail in August on a long-awaited tour of the Great Lakes, and I’ve been waiting ever since for this, our annual cruise edition, to write about it.

Ten destinations in 11 days, highlighted by visits to Mackinac Island, Georgian Bay, the Henry Ford Museum in Detroit, little-known towns and bays on the Canadian side, Niagara Falls and finally Toronto, all of which were new to us. Our ship was the Pearl Mist, the embodiment of “small ship” cruising. Fewer than 200 passengers and operated by Pearl Seas, a sister company of U.S.-based American Cruise Lines, it plies the Great Lakes, St. Lawrence Seaway and Canadian Maritimes and was all that we hoped for.

We had cruised on ACL before – on the Snake and Columbia rivers out West, billed as the “Lewis & Clark” tour, in 2019 – and thoroughly enjoyed it. So we knew what to expect – spacious accommodations, upscale cuisine featuring local dishes and wines, experienced travel guides, informative lectures and knowledgeable passengers. All the ingredients for an educational and entertaining cruise.

“Slow-Running River”

Cruising is all about the itinerary, as you savvy MarEx readers know, and the Great Lakes impressed us as an overlooked, off-the-beaten-path destination. How many people do you know who’ve cruised the Great Lakes? We didn’t know any. We didn’t see a single other cruise ship on our voyage. No crowded ports jammed with mega-ships unloading thousands of passengers at once. This was more of a naturalist’s tour – not quite expeditionary, but close enough.

The Great Lakes are home to 40 million people, a $4 trillion economy and 2,300 miles of shoreline. They border both the U.S. and Canada – mainly Canada, running the entire length of the province of Ontario. They also border seven U.S. states – can you name them? The region comprises the sixth largest economy in the world on a stand-alone basis and features industries ranging from agriculture and mining to manufacturing and recreation.

Picture this: The entire Great Lakes system – the second-largest freshwater lakes in the world after Lake Baikal in Russia – is really a slow-running river, as our naturalist/guide explained on the first night of the cruise, flowing from west to east and dropping nearly 400 feet in the process. From Lake Superior in the west (elevation: 601 feet), it flows through Lakes Michigan, Huron and Erie, descending slowly, and then plunges nearly 200 feet over Niagara Falls and into the Niagara River, which flows into Lake Ontario, which flows into the St. Lawrence River and eventually the Atlantic Ocean. And here I had thought all along that it flowed the other way, from east to west. The things you learn on a cruise!

Sights & Sounds

Our adventure began in Milwaukee, an oft-maligned city that has more to offer than people think (you do know which lake Milwaukee’s on, right?). We stayed in a nice hotel the night before, compliments of the cruise line, and boarded buses the next day to tour the city.

Milwaukee’s an old industrial town that’s seen better days, but it’s thriving once again with a young and hip population and lots of big companies. Think Northwestern Mutual (the “quiet company”), Briggs & Stratton, Kohl’s, Rockwell and S.C. Johnson. Our tour included the Harley-Davidson Museum, the Pabst Mansion and the stunning Milwaukee Art Museum, which looks like a sailing ship or an ocean liner and was designed by renowned architects Eero Saarinen, David Kahler and Santiago Calatrava.

From there we crossed the lake you know the name of to Muskegon, the “Riviera of the Midwest,” where timber barons once lived, and boarded buses to Holland. That’s Holland as in Michigan, but you could easily imagine yourself in a small Dutch town. Clog shops, blueberries (blueberry donuts, anyone?), an authentic windmill (a gift from the real Holland) and – surprise, surprise! – the yellow brick road. Yes, the yellow brick road made famous by American author L. Frank Baum in his best-selling children’s book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, published in 1900. Baum spent summers there vacationing with his family, and the Oz Sculpture Garden features a replica of the original yellow brick road.  

We then ventured north to Mackinac Island, home to horse-drawn carriages and the fabulous Grand Hotel. It’s pronounced “Mack-in-aw,” by the way, even though it ends in a “c.” We rode on a tour of the island in an open carriage carrying 35 passengers and drawn by three horses that looked like Clydesdales, arriving just in time for lunch at the hotel, built in 1887 and boasting the longest front porch in the world. Talk about being in another era – you half expected to see women in hoop skirts and men in top hats.

That night they served walleye onboard the Pearl Mist. Walleye is a fish, a Great Lakes specialty, that takes some getting used to – at least for this amateur gourmand. I’d had it a number of times before and was often disappointed. But done right, it’s hard to beat, and it was done right.

On to Sault (“Soo”) St. Marie, Canada, where the St. Mary’s River connects Lakes Superior and Huron. “Sault” is the French word for “jumping,” and the rapids there were called “jumping waters” by the natives. We didn’t have to transit the locks as Lake Superior was not on the itinerary (sadly, but that’s a whole cruise in itself) and instead sailed straight through the Straits of Mackinac into Lake Huron, perhaps the least known and least visited of the Great Lakes.

But first a side trip to Georgian Bay, nicknamed the “sixth Great Lake” but really a part of Lake Huron. Named after King George IV of England, the bay is home to 30,000 islands inhabited (if at all) by the Anishinaabe (“An-uh-shin-AAH-be”) tribe of the First Nations, as Canada’s indigenous peoples are known (Algonquins or Ojibwe in America). One of the most scenic and serene trips you’ll ever take, highlighted for this rabid sports fan by a stop at the quaint town of Parry Sound, Ontario, home of the Bobby Orr Museum.

Then a full day of sailing down Lake Huron to Windsor, Ontario. Not another vessel in sight. Like Georgian Bay, scenic and serene – and quiet. It was like being in the middle of the ocean, and for all practical purposes we were. With a surface area of 23,000 square miles, Huron is the second largest of the Great Lakes (you know which is the largest, right?) and the fifth largest freshwater lake in the world. Two hundred and six miles long and nearly as wide at 183 miles, its 3,200 miles of shoreline are mostly wilderness (when you could see it). A day of reading, reflection and staring in amazement.

Lake Huron empties into the St. Clair River, which empties into Lake St. Clair, which empties into the Detroit River. And that’s how you get to Windsor, which is directly across the river from Detroit. Windsor is home to 250,000 people, a laid-back lifestyle and the second largest concentration of Detroit Tigers fans in the world. Most of its residents work in the automobile or related industries – either in Windsor or across the Ambassador Bridge in Detroit.

So the next day we crossed the Ambassador Bridge to Detroit with a busload of fellow cruisers to visit the world-famous Henry Ford Museum in nearby Dearborn. I had never heard of the Henry Ford Museum (have you?), but it’s a must-visit.

Built in 1929 and named for its founder, the museum (full name: The Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation) and the adjacent Greenfield Village (as in “greenfield,” a site for future development) constitute one of the biggest indoor/outdoor exhibition spaces in the world. A combination of the Museum of Natural History in New York and the Smithsonian in Washington, they’re a tribute to American ingenuity and knowhow and to how people lived and worked over two centuries of progress.

The museum features Henry Ford’s extensive collection planes, locomotives and cars from every decade, including presidential limousines. Remember the Edsel? Of course you do. What about the DeSoto, or the Hudson Hornet? They’re all there. We rode through Greenfield Village, an outdoor living history museum that includes a working farm and nearly 100 historic buildings imported from across the U.S., in a vintage 1926 Model T roadster. The village has four of them, and they’re understandably the most popular exhibit with a long line of waiting customers – $10.

We had lunch in one of the historic buildings, the Eagle Tavern, a replica of a Revolutionary War inn with waiters in period costumes, a parchment menu and flickering lanterns. We could have spent a week there but had only one day. If you’re interested in learning more, tune into Mo Rocca’s “The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation” on CBS every Saturday morning. It’s broadcast from the museum.

Horseshoe Falls

The next day was spent cruising Lake Erie, digesting what we had seen at the Henry Ford and preparing for the big show – Niagara Falls. Nothing like saving the best for last!

Erie is the second smallest of the Great Lakes and the shallowest, but it’s the most industrialized with major cities like Toledo, Sandusky, Lorain, Cleveland, Ashtabula, Erie and Buffalo dotting its shores. It caught fire once from all the industry, but that was really the Cuyahoga River, one of its tributaries. Lake Erie flows into the Niagara River, carrying the full weight of Lakes Superior, Michigan and Huron with it, then over Niagara Falls and on into Lake Ontario.

There are really three falls at Niagara – American and Bridal Veil on the U.S. side and Horseshoe on the Canadian side. Horseshoe is by far the biggest and most impressive, and that’s the one we visited – up close and personal, in a Hornblower tour boat. And did we get wet! Despite wearing a rain slicker and being forewarned, the boat got so close that the spray from the falls left no place to hide. And the noise! The roar of the falls was deafening and perhaps the best part of the whole experience – aside from the majesty of the falls themselves.

So I’ll leave it at that – hard to top Niagara Falls. We journeyed on through the Welland Canal (eight locks) to Lake Ontario and ended our tour the next day in Toronto, Canada’s largest and most cosmopolitan city. Did you feel like you were on the cruise with me? I hope so. Bon voyage and happy sailing! – MarEx

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.