cruise ships sail the Great Lakes
By Ted Katauskas
Posted July 26, 2005
Luxury cruise ships, nearly absent from the Great Lakes
since the rise of the automobile, are returning to the country's
inland seas. Midwestern port towns have never looked so
Sometimes, at this latitude, in the upper reaches of
Lake Huron, the aurora borealis shimmers above the horizon.
The last time I saw the northern lights was in 1991, when
I was a passenger hitching a lift aboard the Joseph L.
Block, an ore carrier, from a steel mill near my Indiana
hometown to the docks in Duluth, Minnesota. A dozen years
later, I'm out on the same stretch of water—this time
aboard Le Levant, a 330-foot French ship, rather than
a Midwestern freighter. But I'm the only passenger awake,
at 11 p.m., to witness the pale green curtain of light.
My 90 fellow cruisers are asleep in their cabins, saving
their energy for another relentless morning of touring
the towns we visit during our eight-day cruise from Milwaukee
to Toronto, passing through Lakes Michigan, Superior,
Huron, Erie, and Ontario. With no one around but an officer
on watch, I wander the deserted decks, play the piano
in the empty lounge, take a seat at the captain's table
in the formal dining room, where crystal, sterling, and
china await another five-course dinner from our French
chef, Patrice Mick. Horn blasts from a passing freighter
shatter the silence.
A luxury liner navigating the Midwest's inland seas is
something of a spectacle, a sight unseen since the 1930's.
From the Gilded Age until the close of the Jazz Age, industrialists
and socialites from Detroit, Chicago, and Milwaukee sailed
the Great Lakes on a fleet of passenger ships that were
as elegant as their transatlantic counterparts. By the
end of World War II, with the increase in auto and air
travel, cruise ships on the lakes had all but disappeared.
Since then, American outfitters haven't given much thought
to these waters, which on paper seem far less sexy than
they are in reality. But a few years ago, three European
companies saw the appeal of freshwater voyages, and a
full-fledged resurrection is now under way. The German-owned,
400-passenger Columbus took its maiden journey from Hamburg
up the St. Lawrence River to the lakes in 1997. Le Levant
was launched a year later, and spends every June and July
in the Midwest; a German vessel, the recently christened
Orion, made its Great Lakes debut last month. Cruise enthusiasts
who've sailed all the typical itineraries—the Caribbean,
Hawaii, Alaska—have been buying up the berths on all three
ships since they hit the docks. Not only do these European-run
trips reintroduce a domestic waterway to well-traveled
passengers, but they also impart a visitor's enthusiasm
for North America, with onboard experts lecturing on local
heroes and Native American culture, and guiding land-based
tours to historic sites from Michigan to Montreal.
Standing on the shore of Georgian Bay, near Lake Huron,
in 1615, French explorer Samuel de Champlain believed he
had found the South Sea, a passage to the Orient. That a
seasoned sailor might mistake an inland lake for open ocean
seems counterintuitive until you actually venture onto the
Great Lakes and see how impossibly vast they are. It's difficult
to comprehend how much water is out there: 6 quadrillion
gallons covering 94,000 square miles, a fifth of the world's
surface freshwater, enough to submerge the whole of the
contiguous United States under 9 1/2 feet. Between Lakes
Huron and Erie, in the middle of one of the most densely
populated regions of North America, except for occasional
glimpses of smokestacks and other signposts of civilization,
the horizon is a flat blue line on all sides.
When I crave a respite from the evening quiet, I duck onto
the bridge, something I wouldn't be allowed to do on the
Queen Mary 2. Maurice, the French first officer, is at the
helm (which, I'm disappointed to discover, is a finger dial
on a console, not a wooden wheel), and he launches into
a spirited defense of sailing the Great Lakes. "French
Jesuit missionaries came to this area in the seventeenth
century, and we lost control of it in 1763," he says.
"But to us, this is nonetheless new. The French do
not understand what it's like on these waters. Our lakes
are puddles in comparison." The captain, Jean-Philippe
Lemaire, assures me that he shares his first mate's enthusiasm
for this unusual cruising destination, one where American
values seem to have stood still for centuries.
Captain Lemaire is 47 and reminds me of Fred Astaire:
handsome, deeply tanned, dashing in his dress whites.
He often reminisces about his estate in Brittany; his
son, a cadet in the Merchant Marines; and his late grandfather,
the maître d' aboard the Normandie. He talks passionately
about the engineering particulars of Le Levant: its ice
hull, hardened for adventure expeditions; its 11-foot
draft, shallow enough to navigate rivers. He tells me
about the time he piloted the ship from Long Island to
Antigua through a hurricane that lasted four days, then
describes navigating among icebergs in the uncharted Arctic
and journeying down the Amazon. "To arrive in Iquitos,
Peru, when it's raining the dogs and the cats and I cannot
see the dock, and to suddenly hear 'La Marseillaise' from
a band on a dock in the middle of the jungle," Lemaire
says with a sigh, "that is a gift." When asked
if the lakes might seem a bit tame by comparison, Lemaire
smiles. "A true professional can make even sailing
into Cleveland seem special."
Exploring port citiesis half the appeal of a Levant cruise;
its other authentically American calls include Chicago
and Grand Haven, Detroit, and Port Huron in Michigan.
On Mackinac Island, a Midwestern version of Nantucket
where cars have been banned, I rent my own horse and buggy.
Just off Whitefish Point, on the northeastern tip of Michigan's
Upper Peninsula on Lake Superior, a flat-bottomed tender
deposits me on a marina of dilapidated wooden boats, some
sunk and melting into the sand. I wander the docks, venturing
into a run-down barn with SMOKED FISH painted on the side,
and make small talk with two young Chippewa while they
transfer their catch of whitefish from a leaky skiff to
the bed of a battered pickup truck. Down a forested road,
I wander through the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, which
houses a brass bell recovered from the Edmund Fitzgerald,
an ill-fated ore carrier that has lain broken and submerged
in the icy waters since 1975, not far from Le Levant's
anchor. In Dearborn, a pair of tour guides takes a group
of us to the Henry Ford Museum to inspect George Washington's
camp bed, Edgar Allan Poe's portable writing desk, and
the Lincoln Continental that carried John F. Kennedy on
the day he was assassinated.
If ships were cars, Le Levant would be a Cadillac. Unlike
the spartan steel interior of a Great Lakes freighter (the
nautical equivalent of a semitruck), Le Levant's inside
is all hardwood and marble. My lower-deck cabin, the smallest
of 45 state rooms, has a plate-glass picture window and
a bathroom with a teak floor, a marble washbasin, and a
shower pod that seems to have been designed for the International
Space Station. From the outside, the ship is more private
mega-yacht than commercial liner, gleaming white and navy
blue and flying the French flag.
Captain Lemaire dotes on the pristine ship as if it were
a favorite child, rewarding only the most careful lockmasters
who lead it safely through the eight locks between Lakes
Michigan and Ontario with a case of Bordeaux at the end
of the summer season. Over the ship's public address system,
Jacques, the French-Canadian cruise director, encourages
passengers to feel a similar pride of ownership, telling
them to enjoy another day aboard Le Levant, "your
very own private yacht."
On Lake Huron, there's a sangria party by the ship's swimming
pool, and carefree couples sashay around its edge to "The
Girl from Ipanema," performed on electric piano. Out
on Lake Erie, breakfast is presented in the Restaurant Panoramique,
a sun-soaked glass-walled salon. As we approach our next
port of call, there's a rush to the buffet. I pile my plate
with sugared brioche and make my way up to the observation
deck, where I join a knot of my fellow passengers—some so
at home that they stand in the fresh air nibbling at croissants,
wearing little more than terry-cloth robes and slippers.
There's nothing but seamless gray all around us. But
directly ahead, through the morning haze, a city is rising
from the lake like pillars of illuminated crystal. The
early sun glints off the windows of skyscrapers, scattering
shafts of light outward and upward in all directions.
The image looks precisely as I have imagined Kitezh, the
mythical city that is said to lie beneath the waters of
a great lake in Russia. Once a year, the story goes, on
a perfect summer day like this, the lost city reveals
itself, emerging from the mist, and church bells sound
throughout the land. Just before we reach the breakers,
we round a buoy, tolling across the waves as it signals
our arrival in Cleveland.
GREAT LAKES CRUISE CO., 888/891-0203; www.greatlakescruising.com.
Eight-day cruise from Milwaukee to Toronto aboard Le Levant
from $3,599 per person, double.