You may not think of Cleveland, Chicago, Toronto, or Duluth, Minnesota, as hot ports on the cruise map, but this year they are. In June, Green Bay, Wisconsin, had its first-ever cruise ship visit, American Queen Voyages’ 202-passenger Ocean Navigator.
The Ocean Navigator is one of several vessels sailing what has rapidly become an emerging destination for cruising in 2022: the Great Lakes.
This year’s Great Lakes cruise season, which kicked off in the spring and runs into October, is hosting the largest fleet of ships ever to sail the five lakes that straddle the U.S.-Canada border—Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario (or Super Man Helps Every One, for those who love a good mnemonic device to help remember the names). According to the marketing association Cruise the Great Lakes, nine ships are on the lakes this year, which marks a return after no cruises at all in 2020 and 2021 due to COVID-19 restrictions. The number of passengers in 2022 has increased by more than 25 percent compared to 2019, the association reports.
Detroit alone will have 50 cruise ship visits this year, according to Kyle Burleson, director of port operations for the Detroit/Wayne County Port Authority. The previous record was 25. Cruises on the Great Lakes will cumulatively call at 28 different ports in 2022, offering a welcome boon in visitors to the destinations in the American Midwest and Canada that they visit.
Torstein Hagen, chairman of Viking, which has a new 378-passenger polar expedition ship, Viking Octantis, summering in the region and returning next year, is so optimistic about the U.S.-Canada cruises that he has begun referring to the embarkation port of Milwaukee as “the Miami of the Great Lakes.”
“The growth of cruise shipping and the arrival of vessels like the Viking Octantis and Ocean Navigator on Lake Superior this year has elevated our communities, the Lake Superior basin, and the entire Great Lakes region to reach new global travel audiences as a premier must-see destination,” says Paul Pepe, manager at Tourism Thunder Bay, a destination in Ontario, Canada.
The Great Lakes offer cruisers access to wildlife, natural landscapes, quaint lakeside towns, and industrial history on the U.S. Midwest side. And on the Canadian side, highlights include First Nations cultural experiences, more wildlife and scenic landscapes, and the Georgian Bay Biosphere in Ontario, which UNESCO recognized as the world’s largest freshwater archipelago. Cruise itineraries include three or more of the lakes; some touch all five.
While Great Lakes ships have traditionally been smaller, more modest coastal vessels, Viking is shaking things up by bringing a polar-class expedition ship to the region. The Viking Octantis is equipped with features that include a pair of six-passenger yellow submarines that will be used for under-lake viewing in Canadian waters (but not in U.S. waters due to the Jones Act, maritime legislation that precludes a foreign-flagged vessel from operating excursion craft such as kayaks, Zodiacs, and submarines in the U.S.). French cruise line Ponant is also sailing the Great Lakes this fall and next with luxury expedition ships complete with underwater lounges.
If you’re intrigued, here are the cruise ships to watch that are sailing the aptly named Great Lakes.
The best cruises on the Great Lakes
Ocean Navigator and Ocean Voyager
- Great Lakes sailings: American Queen Voyages sails 10-night cruises between Chicago and Toronto and 14-night cruises between Chicago and Montreal (including a precruise hotel night in the departure city). Fares from $5,000 per person.
- Book now: AQVoyages.com
American Queen Voyages’ two coastal ships in the Great Lakes are the 202-passenger Ocean Voyager (formerly Victory 1) and sister ship Ocean Navigator (formerly Victory II). The ships debuted in 2016 and 2018, respectively. Especially noteworthy: They are the only ships that dock at Chicago’s Navy Pier. (The only other cruise itinerary on the Great Lakes to visit Chicago will be one hosted by German line Hapag-Lloyd in 2023.)
Both the Ocean Voyager and Ocean Navigator feature recently updated traditional decor. Accommodations range from small, 146-square-foot cabins and deluxe staterooms with a shared outdoor deck to 335-square-foot owner’s suites with private veranda and living room area. Fares include unlimited open bar and use of bikes for shoreside rides.
In addition to the main Coastal Dining Room, the ships have a casual buffet venue. The Compass Lounge is the place for port talks and entertainment. There’s also a small tavern, gym, spa, and outdoor hot tub. Local musicians come onboard for performances, such as a Motown tribute in Detroit.
- Great Lakes sailings: Seven-night cruises between Toronto and Milwaukee take place in September this year and September and October in 2023. Fares from $5,170.
- Book now: Ponant.com
French luxury line Ponant has its 184-passenger Le Bellot (built in 2020) in the Great Lakes this fall, to be joined by sister ship Le Dumont d’Urville in 2023. These six-deck expedition yachts boast the kind of international cuisine and complimentary wine pours you’d expect on French-operated vessels, plus an outdoor swimming pool and a panoramic lounge. And there is the super-cool feature of an underwater sensory lounge, Blue Eye, with submarine-like views of walleye fish and other Great Lakes marine life.
The ships have a subtle contemporary decor and both casual and more formal dining options, 188-seat theaters, spa and fitness areas, and a fleet of nine Zodiacs (for use in Canadian waters).
- Great Lakes sailings: The line sails 7- to 11-night cruises through four of the Great Lakes (Ontario, Huron, Erie, and Michigan). Fares from $5,650 per person.
- Book now: PearlSeaCruises.com
Pearl Seas Cruises (sister line to American Cruise Lines) has on the Great Lakes the intimate, 210-passenger Pearl Mist, a 15-year-old coastal cruiser done up in crisp, classic decor. One big bonus: All cabins have sliding glass doors leading to balconies.
The ship has lounges, a library, and a general low-key atmosphere. It’s the kind of ship without a lot of activities, where passengers are happy to occupy themselves with views, reading, or conversation. Shore experiences include kayaking, hiking, lobster fishing, and glass-bottom boat tours.
- Great Lakes sailings: Viking offers an 8-day cruise between Toronto and Milwaukee and a 15-day cruises between Toronto and Duluth; all-inclusive fares from $5,995 per person.
- Book now: VikingCruises.com
This new, state-of-the-art, long and narrow expedition ship was built for Southern Hemisphere summers in Antarctica and is spending Northern Hemisphere summers in the Great Lakes. Its style and onboard amenities are in a league of their own for cruises in the region. It’s the largest ship in the Great Lakes, though small enough to clear (by a tight one foot) the 27-mile Welland Canal that connects Lake Ontario and Lake Erie.
Fans of Viking will recognize the sleek Scandinavian decor and Nordic accents, dining choices (including Manfredi’s for Italian), and a wide range of accommodations, with designs that mimic the interiors of the line’s ocean and river ships. One difference, however, is that rather than have step-out balconies, staterooms feature windows that open to let in the breeze.
On a recent tour of the vessel in the port of Milwaukee, I was impressed by the many lounge spaces, which include a “hidden” speakeasy; the indoor/outdoor infinity pool that links to hot, tepid, and cold outdoor dipping pools; the expansive Nordic spa; a lecture hall; and heated outdoor furniture and firepits. The onboard lab where scientists, including from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), will conduct research and experiments is another wow factor, as is the 20-person expert expedition team onboard. In addition to the submarine, the ship also carries Zodiacs and kayaks (for use in Canadian waters).
A second expedition vessel, the Viking Polaris, will join the Viking Octantis in the Great Lakes for the 2023 season.
What to know about cruising between the U.S. and Canada
If you are cruising between the U.S. and Canada you will, first off, need your passport. As of press time, Canada requires cruise passengers age 12 and up to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 (some cruise lines require passengers age 5 and up to be vaccinated) and to have completed ArriveCAN health forms prior to arrival.
Everyone cruising in Canada must also undergo precruise testing (something that the majority of cruise lines also still require) even though prearrival COVID testing has been dropped for international air arrivals into Canada. Make sure to check with your cruise line and the latest government restrictions as requirements can and do change. Some ships, for instance, require passengers to have booster shots.