The hottest cruise destination might just be one in your own backyard, and one of the newest expedition cruise companies in the industry thinks it has the best option for sailing there. Viking Great Lakes cruises are grabbing the attention of travelers eager to try something new. And with two new expedition ships, Viking Cruises will deliver learning and adventure in style.
Viking's cruises on the Great Lakes have proved so popular, much of the inaugural season on Viking Octantis sold out by April. Demand is so high that Viking has decided to deploy its second expedition ship, Viking Polaris, to the region in 2023.
Here's what you can expect on a Viking cruise on the Great Lakes.
Viking Great Lakes Cruises Are Offered on Two Ships
Viking cruises to the Great Lakes in 2022 on Viking Octantis, and in 2023, it will be joined there by sister ship Viking Polaris.
The two expedition ships carry 378 passengers apiece and blend nature exploration with comfort and luxury. Both ships have a wide variety of restaurants, comfortable and spacious cabins, and an extensive expedition team whose aim is to help guests learn about the destinations they visit and the creatures that call the Great Lakes home.
Viking Octantis and Polaris are sized to perfectly fit through the narrow Welland Canal, which connects Lake Ontario and Lake Erie in the Canadian province of Ontario. In fact, Viking's newest expedition ships were supposed to be wider, but a change to the blueprints was made when it was determined they would be slightly too big to make it through the canal and transit from the St. Lawrence Seaway to the Great Lakes.
Viking Great Lakes Cruise Itineraries Visit Big Cities and Hidden Gems
Viking Great Lakes cruises offer a well-rounded variety of port visits, with big cities like Toronto and lesser-known spots like the Apostle Islands in Wisconsin. The commonality of all Viking Great Lakes itineraries is that they visit a combination of U.S. and Canadian ports.
The Viking Great Lakes cruise season runs roughly from April through September, and itineraries have been popular with cruisers, many who are North American guests looking to explore a little closer to home.
Viking's 15-day itineraries visit all five of the Great Lakes, giving passengers a chance to traverse the Soo Locks as well as visit Niagara Falls. Homeports for this one are either Duluth, Minnesota, or Toronto. The shorter, eight-day cruises use either Thunder Bay, Ontario, or Milwaukee as a homeport and visit lakes Huron, Superior and Michigan. These, too, go through the Soo Locks.
What is Offered on Viking's Expedition Cruise Ships?
When it comes to expedition and exploration of the lakes, Viking Octantis and Viking Polaris offer a wide range of activities and amenities. For starters, there's a 36-person expedition team, which includes scientists, marine specialists, naturalists and guides. This team will serve to shape your cruise, leading lectures, research in the onboard research center, The Laboratory, guiding passengers in port and ashore, and taking questions in the casual setting of The Expedition Lounge.
The ships are equipped with a range of expedition gear, including two yellow submarines and two high-end Special Operations Boats (comically called SOBs) that offer comfortable, high-speed journeys, loaded from inside the cruise ship. Rides on all these are free, though they require reservations and are subject to weather.
Lectures routinely take place, mostly around the Great Lakes and the wildlife there, in the ship's high-tech Aula theater, which offers expansive 270 views thanks to the floor-to-ceiling windows, and a giant 4K screen.
At least one excursion per port is included in the price of your fare.
Will the Submarine be Used on a Viking Cruise on the Great Lakes?
This is a tricky question. As Viking was planning these journeys, it had expected the two submarines, along with the ship's 16 kayaks, two SOBs, 17 Zodiacs and dive boat, would be permitted to operate in Canadian waters, but not in U.S. waters. (Neither ship is registered in the United States, and therefore, the Passenger Vessel Services Act of 1886 prohibits the ships or any vessels they carry from operating in U.S. waters.)
In its first season in the Great Lakes, Viking hasn't yet been able to operate any of that equipment in either Canada or the U.S. If you're booking this trip, be aware that the "toys" might not be able to be used. If not being able to use them would ruin your vacation, this probably isn't the right trip for you.
Wildlife Exploration Abundant on a Viking Great Lakes Cruise
Visiting the Great Lakes by expedition ship offers the opportunity to see the region in an intimate way.
According to Reagan Errera, a research ecologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory, guests will have plenty to take in on their cruises to the region.
Underwater, that could be salmon, whitefish, lake trout, sturgeon or pike. Or it could be the invasive species of mussels -- quagga and zebra -- found in the Great Lakes. And of course, there might be some shipwrecks, also. (Visit The National Marine Sanctuary in Thunder Bay to see almost 100 historic shipwrecks.)
Ashore, the Great Lakes are a birders paradise, a great spot to spot bald eagles, loons, sandhill cranes and cormorants. Wolves and bears are also found in the region and along the shores.
"It's in our backyard, and it's one of the largest ecosystem services we have in the world," Errera said of the region. "I don't think people have had a chance to explore them and see how big they really are."
Onboard, passengers will have the ability to have a greater discussion about the science of the area, Errera said. This will include lectures and even lab work, as Viking's expedition ships will be working science vessels, and they'll engage their passengers in "citizen science." For example, they might test the Ph levels of the Lakes' waters.
For Errera, who exudes excitement talking about the Great Lakes, the aim is to have people leave feeling like they have a better understanding and a new connection to the region.
"I really hope people walk away (thinking), 'I had no clue'," she said.