Detroit will cut the ribbon on its new riverfront "cruise port" next month. But that doesn't mean it will attract much business: Detroit may well be channeling the "Field of Dreams" mantra -- the often repeated (and usually misquoted as) "If you build it, they will come." Certainly Detroit is a logical place for a Great Lakes cruise stop. But, at least for now, Great Lakes cruising is at a low ebb, with only a few ships and high rates. The future depends on how well some of you might enjoy a Great Lakes cruise.
Currently, as far as I can tell, two lines operate cruises within the Great Lakes:
*Hapag-Lloyd, the big German shipping line, operates the only real cruise ship on the Great Lakes. After an absence of several years, its MV Columbus is back, this year making a single round trip from Toronto to Chicago, in September. The ship, holding up to 418 passengers in 203 cabins, was designed specifically to serve the Great Lakes; it's the largest cruise ship able to navigate the limited clearances through the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Welland Canal.
However, after initially trying to mount a full season, market support was apparently inadequate, and the Columbus didn't operate in the Great Lakes at all in some recent years. This year's rates are high -- starting at $3,540 per person for 13 nights, or $272 per night -- more than double what you pay on a mass-market cruise line in Alaska, the Caribbean, Mexico, or the Mediterranean.
*Blount (formerly American Canadian Caribbean Line) operates three smaller ships with a mix of Great Lakes and river/canal cruises in the United States and Canada. The Grand Caribe, Grand Mariner and Niagara Prince resemble European river cruise boats rather than cruise ships; they're small (100 passengers) and low-slung, to get under the many bridges they encounter on river and canal cruises. Together, they run a handful of Great Lakes cruises as well as some Great Lakes cruising on canal and river itineraries.
Other possibilities, for the future if not now: Travel Dynamics ran a Great Lakes itinerary in 2010 but so far has posted nothing for this year. Traverse Tall Ship Company operates short Lake Michigan trips from Traverse City in its 24-passenger sailing ship. And one carrier offers freighter travel between various Great Lakes and European ports.
Typical ports of call include Duluth and Thunder Bay on Lake Superior; Chicago, Holland, Mich., Mackinac Island, Milwaukee, and Sturgeon Bay on Lake Michigan; Canadian ports Blueberry Island, Goderich, and Midland on Lake Huron-Georgian Bay; Cleveland and Detroit on Lake Erie, and Toronto on Lake Ontario.
Today's lineup is a far cry from the heyday of Great Lakes shipping and cruising. A 1948 Official Railroad Guide that I use for historical reference lists a full summer season of Great Lakes cruises on two ships. I vaguely remember our family's taking my grandfather to Chicago's Navy Pier to board a lake ship for his annual trip to Northern Michigan, and quite a few such ships plied the lakes. I also remember reading that the Navy converted two former Great Lakes excursion ships into aircraft carriers to help train pilots at Glenview Naval Air Station -- the only side-wheeler aircraft carriers, ever.
Clearly, for now Great Lakes cruising is a niche market. And whether that niche will grow, shrink, or remain static in the future is anyone's guess. The Detroit city fathers have bet on growth.
Meanwhile, you might well enjoy cruising on our vast and unique lake system, where you don't have to worry about foreign currencies, languages, long overseas flights, and such, and you won't be trekked through endless straw hat and basket stores.
If you'd like to test the waters yourself, you can book Great Lakes cruises through Great Lakes Cruise Co., www.greatlakescruising.com, (888) 891-0203; and Blount Small Ship Adventures, www.blountsmallshipadventures.com, (800) 556-7450; or check freighter trips at Freighter World Cruises, www.freighterworld.com, (800) 531-7774.