What’s So Great About a Great Lakes Cruise?

Discover the nature, culture and rich maritime history of the Great Lakes on a deluxe cruise tour.

Niagara Falls

Photo: iStock

A cool mist blows across my face. With one hand, I’m trying to snap photos of Niagara Falls’s thundering cascade; with the other, I’m trying to keep the hood of my poncho from blowing off. Eventually, I abandon both camera and unruly hood and just savor the moment.

Seeing Niagara Falls had long been on my bucket list. It never occurred to me that the easiest way to see these awe-inspiring cascades might be to cruise the Great Lakes, sailing on a voyage between Chicago and Toronto.

Carved by receding glaciers 10,000 years ago, the Great Lakes form the world’s largest freshwater ecosystem. The five lakes cover more than 94,000 square miles and border eight U.S. states, plus the Canadian province of Ontario.

A cruise on the Great Lakes is a cross between an ocean cruise and a river cruise. Like sea journeys, there are full days on the water with time to enjoy lectures and striking views. And, like on a river trip, the included shore excursions in each port take travelers to sightseeing highlights.

Mackinac Island

Photo: iStock

After the passengers board, the ship sails from Chicago across Lake Michigan to Mackinac Island, where you step back to the Victorian era, when horse-drawn carriages were the only means of transportation. Even today, no motorized vehicles are allowed on the island—just bicycles and the carriage that takes you to the remarkably restored Fort Mackinac, a key military outpost in the American Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. The day’s high point is an opulent luncheon served at the legendary Grand Hotel, built in 1887 to entertain the wealthy summer crowd.

Next, take in Georgian Bay, a pretty, island-dotted region in Lake Huron. Manitoulin Island, your next destination, is the largest freshwater island on the planet. After docking in Little Current, on the northern coast of the isle, enjoy a show of traditional dancing and drumming from Canada’s indigenous Ojibwe people.

The ship enters Lake Superior, the largest of the five lakes, via the Soo Locks; to continue its cruise through the Great Lakes, your ship reverses direction and returns to Lake Huron, joining the 10,000 ships that pass through the locks each year.

Rocky coast of Ontario, Canada

Photo: Alamy

A relaxing cruise day brings you to Windsor, Ontario; across the bridge is Detroit, Michigan, home to the Henry Ford Museum and its captivating collection of trains, planes and automobiles. Next up is Cleveland, Ohio, site of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which is packed with rock star memorabilia.

On day nine, you’ll reach the Welland Canal, which links Lake Erie and Lake Ontario via a series of eight locks. While your ship passes through the locks, you’ll disembark to experience Niagara Falls up close on a Hornblower sightseeing boat.

Your Great Lakes cruise ends the next morning in Toronto, set on the shores of Lake Ontario.

Want to learn more about how to cruise the Great Lakes? Call 877-396-7159 or contact a AAA Travel Counselor for details.

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Janice Yip-Hudson, AAA Travel Counselor, Daly City, Calif.

Today, people's lives are so busy. We're thinking three days ahead just to get through our to-do lists. I love helping my clients plan vacations where they have nothing to do but relax; where time stands still, and you're just on vacation.

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