With nearly 100,000 square miles of unsalted, open water, the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River play host to small-ship cruise vessels that carry travelers to some of the Midwest’s best cities. After weathering the effects of COVID-19, the Great Lakes cruise industry is back like never before and is setting records with not only its popularity but also its economic impact.

“Cruising the Great Lakes has grown in popularity with those who have traditionally traveled by cruise ship in other areas of the world,” says David Lorenz, vice president of Travel Michigan and board chairman of Cruise the Great Lakes, the organization that’s building awareness of Great Lakes cruising options. “It’s easy to understand why these travelers are considering this region. The unparalleled beauty of our freshwater seas combined with the vibrant port destinations, ideal three-season climate, and intimate setting only available on small cruise ships offer a unique, compelling experience.”

Pearl Mist in Milwaukee,
Credit: Pearl Seas Cruises

According to Cruise the Great Lakes, this year’s cruise season (typically May through October) is set to include 800 port visits, generating an estimated $235 million in economic impact (an 80% increase from 2022!) across the international Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River waterways. Other positive numbers include an anticipated 25,000 cruise passengers this year, an increase of more than 20% from last year, traveling on a total of 11 ships—with more expected to come online next year.

“Great Lakes and St. Lawrence cruising has proven to be a growth industry that brings significant value to the region’s ports,” Lorenz says. “More passengers, more port visits, increased shoreside spending, and a growing price premium for Great Lakes cruises are the leading contributing factors.”

Intimate Appeal

Several cruise companies operate vessels in the Great Lakes region, including Viking, St. Lawrence Cruise Lines, Hapag-Llyod Cruises, Ponant, Pearl Seas Cruises, and American Queen Voyages (although after this year, American Queen will no longer operate in the Great Lakes). While some have been cruising in this region for decades, others are new to the freshwater seas—giving groups many options when it comes to cruise destinations and itineraries.

Viking, known for its river and ocean cruises, debuted last year on the Great Lakes, where it now operates two expedition vessels designed specifically to reach this region of North America—Viking Octantis and Viking Polaris. The sister ships each host 378 guests in 189 staterooms, and offer more indoor and outdoor viewing areas than its other ships, allowing guests to get up-close with the region’s natural beauty. Meanwhile, Pearl Seas Cruises’ Pearl Mist has cruised on the Great Lakes since 2014. The 210-passenger ship debuted a major interior redesign to kick off this year’s cruise season, complete with fresh color palettes, new furniture, and regionally inspired artwork. Another longstanding cruise company is St. Lawrence Cruise Lines, which has a 43-year history of cruising on Canada’s rivers with its 64-passenger Canadian Empress. “We like to think of our particular St. Lawrence River region as the gateway to the Great Lakes,” says Daniel Beals, marketing coordinator at St. Lawrence Cruise Lines. “ The St. Lawrence Seaway has a huge impact on the larger region and effectively connects it all as one water system.

St. Lawrence Cruise Lines,
Credit: St. Lawrence Cruise Lines

“River cruising is different from ocean or even Great Lakes cruising due to the sheltered waters and proximity to land,” Beals explains. “ The Canadian Empress is a small ship that was built specifically for the river, and the draft of the vessel allows the ship to stop at many of the small towns and ports along the river that could not be reached by a larger vessel. As such, [our cruises emphasize] the culture and history of the ports along the river that harkens back to the initial exploration of the St. Lawrence and Ottawa rivers.”

Popular Ports

Typically, Great Lakes cruise itineraries call on five to 10 ports during their freshwater voyages, visiting both small and large communities throughout the region. Groups can discover the rich history of Mackinac Island, Michigan, and French-Canadian villages; take in the breathtaking shoreline of Lake Superior; and be immersed in the vibrant cultural epicenters of cities such as Detroit, Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Chicago.

Cruise to Detroit,
Credit: Visit Detroit

Cruising ports abound in Michigan, the “Great Lakes State.” For groups looking for charm and a slower pace, Mackinac Island is the port for them. Situated on Lake Huron, the island offers the simple life—no cars or chain hotels, the lulling clomps of horses and buggies on the streets, and lots of history and fudge to go around. Port excursions can include carriage tours, a visit to Fort Mackinac, and lunch at the esteemed Grand Hotel.

Meanwhile, Muskegon is another popular cruise ship location, with top excursions like the USS LST 393 Veterans Museum, Hackley & Hume Historic Site, Muskegon Museum of Art, and the Heritage District. Nearby in Holland, cruisegoers can stroll and shop along downtown’s cobblestone streets, snap a photo of the iconic “Big Red” lighthouse, and see an authentic Dutch windmill at Windmill Island Gardens. On the east side of the state, Detroit shines bright with entertainment and attractions, including the Motown Museum, Detroit Institute of Arts, and Detroit Tigers baseball at Comerica Park.

In Minnesota, Duluth is located on the far western shores of Lake Superior, offering rugged adventure and relaxation galore. Groups enjoy riding the North Shore Scenic Railroad, exploring the Great Lakes Aquarium, and hiking the Lake Superior Trail. Meanwhile in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, cruises dock in the heart of downtown, where arts, entertainment, and Midwest charm collide. Cruise passengers enjoy visiting the Harley-Davidson Museum, the Milwaukee Public Market, the Milwaukee Art Museum, and more.

Viking ship in the Port of Duluth, Credit: Viking

In Canada, St. Lawrence River Cruise Lines’ small ship lends itself to visiting the small ports along the St. Lawrence and Ottawa rivers, as well as Montreal, Ottawa, and Quebec City. “We are especially popular with senior travelers and couples who are seeking a cruise that showcases the beauty and history of the Thousand Islands and the St. Lawrence Seaway,” Daniels says. “All shore tours are included in the cruise fare, and there is an emphasis on local community museums and local points of interest.” Favorite shore excursions include Upper Canada Village near Morrisburg, Ontario, and Omega Park in Quebec, Daniels says, adding, “However, the most popular cruise experience that shows up in our passenger comments is that the warmth and intimacy of the Canadian Empress is a great place to meet new friends from other areas of the world, and many passengers come away from the experience with new lifelong friends with a shared interest in travel.”

Main image: St. Lawrence Cruise Lines; Credit: St. Lawrence Cruise Lines