Updated October 10, 2019
North America's Great Lakes are immense -- just right for a cruising destination that falls somewhere between ocean travel and riverboating. The five Great Lakes form the largest freshwater ecosystem on the planet. Put another way, that's 20 percent of the world's surface fresh water. Carved out by glaciers roughly 10,000 years ago, the Great Lakes cover 95,000 square miles and touch eight states in the U.S. in addition to Canada's province of Ontario.
Is the chance to feel the mist blowing off Niagara Falls on your bucket list? Are you curious about the history of America's car industry in Detroit? Would you like to visit a Victorian island where the only transportation is by horse-drawn carriage or bicycle? Have you ever considered the ease of boarding your cruise ship in the heart of downtown Chicago? Chances are, stops on the Great Lakes itineraries are places you've never thought of as being cruise ports.
In addition to historic, cultural or big-city ports, a bonus of lake cruising is the chance to transit one or more in a series of locks, depending on your itinerary. Lake Superior, the highest, deepest and largest lake sits 600 feet above sea level and is entered from Lake Huron via the Soo Locks. Eight locks on the Welland Canal connect lakes Erie and Ontario. More locks lead to the St. Laurence Seaway en route to Montreal for disembarking (or embarking). Interestingly, the size of the locks determines which ships can and can't offer cruises on the lakes. The big guys are simply too big to fit, making small ships the only way to go.
Best Time for Great Lakes Cruises
The Great Lakes cruise season is a relatively short one, running from late May through mid-September. Beyond these months, the lakes freeze over, and most ports are covered in snow.
Generally, the best time to cruise is from July on, when the days are warmer (in the 90s and more humid) and sunnier. Leaf-peepers may catch fall colors in late August or early September, especially in the most northern areas. Be prepared for thunderstorms at any time, and high winds have been known to delay departures from Chicago (the Windy City).
Great Lakes Cruise Lines
Three companies cruise the Great Lakes from late May through October. Victory Cruise Lines (purchased by American Queen Steamboat Company in 2019) is the newest entry with the 202-passenger Victory I (formerly Saint Laurent) and Victory II offering nine- and 10-night itineraries leaving from Chicago, Detroit, Toronto or Montreal. Pearl Seas Cruises operates the 210-passenger Pearl Mist on seven- or 11-night cruises between Milwaukee and Toronto. Blount Small Ship Adventures' 83-passenger Grande Mariner and 84-passenger Grande Caribe sail a variety of Great Lakes itineraries, including seven-night round trips from Chicago, 13 nights between Chicago and Montreal, and a 15-night trip between Chicago and New York.
Great Lakes Cruise Itineraries
The five Great Lakes cover a vast expanse. Starting in Minnesota, they stretch eastward, touching the states of Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York. On the Canadian side, four lakes (Lake Michigan is entirely within the U.S.) border the province of Ontario. Lake Michigan alone is 307 miles long and 118 miles wide. Given these distances, most lake cruises include a day or three of relaxing cruising time.
Lake Superior is a special case, and it's not on the basic lake-to-lake route, as it lies off to the northwest. Crossing it would mean backtracking to resume cruising on the other four lakes. Entering Lake Superior requires passage through the Soo Locks, and the lake is either omitted from itineraries or included only via a Soo Locks transit in and out again. If adding all five lakes to your bucket list is your goal, be sure your ship actually enters Lake Superior, if only briefly.
The most common itineraries you'll find when looking at Great Lakes cruises are:
Great Lakes: Trips of nine to 11 nights are one-way routes, beginning (or ending) in Chicago on Lake Michigan. Boats travel to Lake Huron (possibly Lake Superior as mentioned above), Lake Erie and finally Lake Ontario. These cruises end (or begin) either in Toronto on Lake Ontario or include a day sailing up the St. Lawrence River to end in Montreal, Quebec. Ports of call vary slightly with Mackinac Island, Little Current and Niagara Falls among the scheduled highlights. Georgian Bay, often called the sixth Great Lake, is a large, picturesque, island-filled bay off the eastern side of Lake Huron. Cruises might sail straight through the bay or call on Parry Sound.
Great Lakes and Erie Canal: Longer cruises of 15 nights trace a similar route from Chicago, adding stops at Cleveland, Ohio, and Buffalo, NY, both on Lake Erie. A stop is made at the Lake Ontario port of Rochester, NY, before entering the Erie Canal, passing through New York Harbor and ending in Warren, RI.
Shorter cruises: Seven-night round trips from Chicago sail primarily on Lake Michigan, entering Lake Huron to visit Mackinac Island. Another seven-night option is a one-way cruise from Chicago to Midland, Ontario, or vice versa. This cruise includes Lakes Michigan and Huron, plus Georgian Bay.
Keep in mind that, heading east, you'll be dropping in elevation through one or more sets of locks (depending on your final destination). Going west, you'll be gaining in elevation. There's a one-hour time change between Chicago and Toronto or Montreal.
Great Lakes Cruise Port Highlights
Chicago, Illinois: Whether you stroll along the Lake Michigan waterfront, wonder at the paintings in the Art Institute of Chicago or shop 'til you drop in the Magnificent Mile's upscale stores, Chicago offers plenty of reasons to stay a few days pre- or post-cruise. Don't miss taking a sightseeing boat along the Chicago River for an eye-opening architectural tour. Navy Pier, where your cruise ship comes in, has a Ferris wheel, gardens, cafes and shops.
Holland, Michigan: Settled by Dutch immigrants in the mid-1800s, Holland happily shows off its roots with thousands of tulips. (The Tulip Time Festival is held annually in May.) Windmill Island Gardens boasts an authentic working Dutch windmill, dikes and canals. Costumed guides demonstrate traditional crafts, including making wooden clogs, at Nelis' Dutch Village.
Mackinac Island, Michigan: Step back in time to the Victorian era. Cars are banned from the island, so you tour in horse-drawn carriages (or by bicycle). Two must-sees are the beautifully preserved 1700s Fort Mackinac and the opulent Grand Hotel. Built of lumber in 1887 for the summer resort crowd, it boasts the world's longest hotel porch. The renowned luncheon buffet overlooking Lake Huron is grand indeed.
Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan: The oldest city in Michigan is the site of the Soo Locks, leading from Lake Huron into Lake Superior. Stop at the viewing stand to watch the freighter traffic. An average of 10,000 ships a year pass through these locks. Explore the nooks and crannies of the Museum Ship Valley Camp. The massive Great Lakes freighter, built in 1917 and retired in 1966, houses displays relating to maritime history in the cargo holds, including two lifeboats from the sinking of the legendary Edmond Fitzgerald in 1975.
Manitoulin Island, Ontario: You dock at Little Current, a charming community known for delicious ice cream and set on the world's largest freshwater island. Attend a pow-wow and colorful dance show performed by the native Ojibwe tribe. Learn about their customs and art at the Ojibwe Cultural Foundation.
Parry Sound, Ontario: The world's deepest natural freshwater port is found on the east shore of Georgian Bay. Ride in a floatplane high above the scenic bay's 30,000 islands. Visit the Museum on Tower Hill near the base of a fire lookout tower. Historical artifacts tell the story of the town's role in shipping and logging.
Windsor, Ontario/Detroit, Michigan: Linked via a bridge spanning the Detroit River, ships might dock at Detroit's renovated pier or in a park-like setting at Windsor, Canada's southernmost city. Either way, the main attraction is on the Michigan side. The Henry Ford Museum, a tribute to American innovation, houses a huge collection of American cars, planes and trains. Learn how Ford Model Ts were made, see John F. Kennedy's ill-fated limo, and grab a snack in an old-time diner.
Niagara Falls, Ontario: Marvel at the famous falls, actually three distinct waterfalls, from the Canadian side. (Half of the falls is claimed by New York.) Then board a tour boat for close-up viewing. You're given a plastic poncho to help keep you dry as the boat (not your cruise ship) motors up to Horseshoe Falls, the largest and most impressive of Niagara's cascades. It's said the equivalent of one million bathtubs of water tumbles over the falls each minute.
Toronto, Ontario: Once a fur trading post, Toronto is home to intriguing neighborhoods that include Chinatown and trendy, boutique-filled Bloor-Yorkville. Attractions worth seeing are the turreted castle Casa Loma with its secret passageways, the new Bata Shoe Museum and the Art Gallery of Ontario for its collections ranging from First Nations artifacts to pop art.
Great Lakes Cruise Tips
Prepare for lots of "sea" days. The long distances covered mean lots of time spent cruising. Bring a book or deck of cards. If you bring your laptop or iPad, be prepared for long periods without connections. Wi-Fi, when it's available, is usually slow. Cell phone service generally works well, but be aware of your location -- U.S. vs. Canada -- and roaming fees.
Beware of engine noise. Long distances between ports also mean cruising at night. Choose you cabin carefully if engine noise keeps you awake. On small ships, forward cabins tend to be quieter.
Pack smart. What should you pack? Passports are required as you'll be entering Canada. Flip-flops or sandals come in handy for the Niagara Falls boat tour. Yes, you can get seasick on the lakes. Bring your patches or pills in case of rough water.
Consider a pre- or post-cruise stay. Most Great Lakes cruises travel one way. Think about spending time before or after your cruise in Chicago, Toronto or Montreal. You won't have time to visit these great cities if you don't book some hotel time. Check with your cruise line for package deals.