Michigan ports welcome new era in Great Lakes cruising

When the Viking Octanis sailed into Houghton’s harbor for the first time earlier this month, its arrival cemented the beginning of a new era in cruising the Great Lakes and evoked  reminders of the Upper Peninsula port’s maritime past.

“This is basically new for anyone who lives here now,” says Eric Waara, Houghton city manager, recalling the city’s maritime past, which included the delivery of cargo, fruits and vegetables (now brought by truck), as well as regular visits from passenger ships like the SS South American, decommissioned in the late 1960s. “There’s been a resurgence in interest in cruising the Great Lakes, especially Lake Superior.”

The Viking Octanis sails into Houghton, the first passenger cruise ship to visit the city in years.

Houghton is one of two Upper Peninsula ports on the itinerary of cruise lines plying the Great Lakes this summer. Sault Ste. Marie is the other. The cruise lines also stop at Mackinac Island and small ports in the lower peninsula, including Alpena and Muskegon. 

“In the past, ships arriving was always a big deal in town. Kids wanted to see the big ships come in. There was a lot of activity,” Waara says. “The (Octanis) arrival brought in a bit more activity than was normal. Honestly, the real value isn’t people getting off the boat and buying things but the level of exposure for this area. We’re looking forward to the exposure we’re going to get from these passengers, people who have not been here before.”

Smaller cruise ships have visited Houghton over the summer. New to sailing the Great Lakes, the Viking Octanis scrubbed three previous attempts in Houghton this summer because of inclement weather, Waara says. The 665-foot ship anchored offshore and tender boats brought passengers ashore at Bridgeview Park. Vacationers could opt for pre-planned tours of the region – mine excursions, seaplane tours of the Keweenaw Peninsula or trips to waterfalls – or explore downtown Houghton’s shops, restaurants and museums. 

The Houghton day visitors – hundreds of passengers on any given ship – are part of a growing number of vacationers boarding cruise ships to explore the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway. In fact, the Great Lakes cruise industry is poised for a record-breaking year after a two-year hiatus because of the pandemic. The number of passengers is up by more than 25 percent from 2019, according to Cruise the Great Lakes, a regional cruise marketing program with a goal to attract more passengers to the lakes.

In all, nine ships are sailing the Great lakes this season, booked with passengers from all over the United States and Canada. The reasons for interest in the Great Lakes as a cruise destination are many, officials say. Sailing back and forth between two countries is a big selling point. Also driving interest is pent-up travel demand, especially for cruise vacations, because of the pandemic, and also a change in mind-set. Many vacationers are seeking “experience” travel and also want to explore destinations closer to home. 

“We’ve known for a long time there was interest in this region for cruising,” says Dave Lorenz, vice president of Travel Michigan, part of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, noting the state’s involvement with the Cruise the Great Lakes organization. “We just didn’t have a lot of ships operating on the lakes and that went into pause during COVID. And now we have cruise lines like Viking Cruises entering the Great Lakes. It’s perfect timing.”

Viking Cruises made its Great Lakes debut this spring with a new ship, the Viking Octantis, with stops in various ports, including Niagara Falls, Point Pelee, Ont., Detroit, Alpena, Mackinac Island, and Milwaukee. The Viking Octantis will cruise through early October, offering a variety of itineraries between Toronto and Duluth.

“Our expedition ships were designed with the Great Lakes in mind. This region has been historically underserved by cruise lines,” Torstein Hagen, Viking chairman, said in an email, noting the company has been delighted by the enthusiastic reception from local communities.

“Our guests are curious explorers. They want to continue traveling with us to familiar and iconic destinations, but they also like to travel further,” he added. 

The luxurious Viking Octantis, with room for 378 passengers, is larger than most of the cruise ships on the Great Lakes. Most ships have fewer than 200 passengers and typically each calls on five to 10 ports in a region. The ports are both large cities -- Chicago, Cleveland, Milwaukee and Detroit -- and small ones, Houghton and Duluth. Many times, the ships are docking in ports with easy access to the small communities.

The amenities on Octantis are similar to other Viking Cruises vessels. They include more indoor and outdoor viewing areas than other ships; a panoramic auditorium used for lectures, documentaries and films; a spa with an indoor heated pool and a wood-sided hot tub, open to the outside; and various dining options.

Cruises along the Great Lakes are far more expensive than Caribbean cruises, costing thousands of dollars. They generally lure an older demographic, mostly from the United States but also from parts of Europe, people in their 60s and above, who are often retired and well-traveled. They’re seeking more laid-back, enrichment vacations. The ships generally don’t offer pools, casinos or shopping. On-board activities generally include music, lectures, and cocktail hours. The focus is more about personal enrichment.

That history appeals to many. It’s not just the Victorian charm of car-less Mackinac Island or its late 18th-century fort or the impressive locks at Sault Ste. Marie. Each port has its own story. In Muskegon, travelers explore the city’s lumbering and maritime past with a visit to one of the city’s many museums. The city also boasts an impressive art museum.

“We’re a unique community,” says Cindy Larsen, president of the Muskegon Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce. “We don’t have mega museums like Detroit but we have museums that you can go through in a couple of hours and explore whatever interests you. Everything is within proximity to each other, just a couple of blocks from the docks.”

To accommodate visitors, the city runs hop-and-go trolleys that take visitors on a tour of the downtown. Another trolley runs guests to the beaches. Guests of the Pearl Mist also had the option of a planned excursion to nearby Holland. 

In Sault Ste. Marie, passengers from Viking Cruises and Ponant Explorer Cruises have disembarked to explore the border city’s downtown of shops, restaurants, historic homes and other amenities, as well as joining pre-planned tours of the region. They range from adventure excursions to lighthouse tours. The Soo Locks are the biggest attraction for most people, curious about how the busiest lock system in the world works. 

“The community loves this,” says Linda Hoath, executive director of the Sault Ste. Marie Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It’s exciting to see the ships come down the river. It’s bringing people right into our community. They’re curious about the area and how we do things, and what it's like to live here. It’s exciting for our tourism and it brings money into the community.”

The economic impact is formidable, estimated at $120 million this season, says Cruise the Great Lakes. Beyond dollars, the cruises draw new attention to communities, bring foot traffic to their downtowns, and also create a sense of pride for residents, who frequently line up along shorelines to welcome ships. 

Even after a banner year, cruising on the Great Lakes is expected to continue to grow. New ports and new ships will further stoke interest. Viking Cruises plans to add a second expedition ship, the Viking Polaris, to the Great Lakes next year.

In Alpena, a port of call for Viking Cruises, community officials are working on a plan to better promote the city’s downtown shops and restaurants to disembarking passengers. The number of cruise ship visits to the northern Michigan city is expected to triple next year. 

“I think this industry will continue to grow and continue to showcase the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway as major destinations for cruising,” Travel Michigan’s Lorenz says. “These cruises offer a glimpse into a variety of places and people in a very comfortable format. You get on the ship and don’t unpack until you leave. It’s a much more intimate experience. You get to know people on board and the crew. It just all packages together perfectly.”
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