Great Lakes Cruising
By Peter Knego.
After decades of cruising the seven seas and well over a dozen rivers, I was long overdue for a proper Great Lakes cruise. My introduction to North America’s vast and enchanting inland waterway was via a 10-day voyage this past May aboard Victory Cruise Line’s 4,954 gross ton, 202-passenger Victory I.
The replica coastal steamer, with her vertical prow, layer cake superstructure and open promenades was an especially attractive option, one that could easily be taken for a modern version of legendary steamers like the North American and South American, which once offered regular cruises through the five Great Lakes in the first half of the 20th century.
Built in 2000 as the Cape May Light for now defunct American Classic Voyages, the Victory I had a somewhat checkered career for different owners as the Sea Voyager and Saint Laurent until 2016, when Victory Cruise Lines purchased her for Great Lakes, St. Lawrence Seaway and Caribbean cruise service.
In late 2018, rapidly expanding American Queen Steamboat Company (AQSC) scooped up Victory Cruise Lines and infused some much-needed cash into the Victory I and her twin, the Victory II, the former Cape Cod Light of 2001. Their stem-to-stern overhauls saw all cabins fitted with new bedding and soft fittings, the public spaces and decks refreshed and the machinery fine-tuned. In the process, an al fresco bar at the stern was enclosed and reconfigured as a casual buffet eatery and a small gym was added.
Under their new management, the ships operate in a similar fashion to the AQSC river vessels, albeit with an international, versus all-American, crew. AQSC, of course, provides a luxury, mostly-inclusive cruising experience with high-quality cuisine, a strong emphasis on local culture and included excursions in each port.
On the ambiance scale, the Victory ships fit somewhere between the gilded, velvety ornateness of the American Queen and the American Empress and the modern, airy vibe of the recently launched American Duchess.
Guests tend to be elderly, retired, affluent and in the case of our voyage, were mainly from the U.S., with a sprinkling of Canadians, Brits, Australians and Europeans. Evening dress on board is resort casual with men in slacks with collared shirts and ladies in comfortable country club garb.
During the Victory I’s second sailing for her new owners, there were some expected start-up issues but overall, thanks to her tireless, dedicated crew and a culturally rich and scenic itinerary, it was a wonderful experience that I would repeat in a heartbeat.
I am happy that Victory will be sailing from the Navy Pier in Chicago in 2020, so I can spare my tales of woe about the South Chicago pier that was used throughout the 2019 season. The Navy Pier is right in the heart of Chicago’s bustling waterfront and within walking distance of numerous attractions and restaurants. It will be an ideal place to begin this most interesting voyage.
The Victory I has five guest decks, beginning at the top with Deck 5, which has open and sheltered deck spaces.
Deck 4 is dedicated to Category AA accommodations and has a forward terrace and an open promenade on each side. At the aft end of Deck 4, the newly-enclosed The Grill is a casual alternate dining venue offering a buffet of limited selections. It is a convenient place to grab a quick bite and provides great views via a panorama of full-length windows.
Deck 3 is fully devoted to accommodations while Deck 2 begins with the Tavern, a favorite pre- and post-dinner drink spot with dark beveled paneling and stained glass accents.
Large enough to accommodate all guests in one seating, the Compass Lounge follows the Tavern. It features oversized crystal chandeliers, hammered tin ceilings, a large stage and a central dance floor and is used for port lectures, quizzes and evening music performances. There is a self-service coffee and tea station with an espresso machine in back and cases with books and games for guests’ use.
The Purser’s lobby on midships Deck 2 has an adjacent gym with two cardio machines and a small spa room/salon. The aft portion of Deck 2 is dedicated to accommodations as is the forward portion of Deck 1.
The Coastal Dining Room is located on aft Deck 1 and offers buffet style breakfast with select menu items such as eggs to order and a full-service lunch and dinner. Wines, beers, soft drinks and other non-premium alcoholic beverages are included in the fare and for lunch and dinner, there is a featured red and white selection.
After boarding, I quickly settled into cozy, well-appointed Category B stateroom 317, which measured approximately 146 square feet and featured two large picture windows.
Each newly refreshed cabin offers a queen or two single beds, plenty of storage space, complimentary Wi-Fi-access, a large flat-screen television with a wide selection of channels, individual climate control and a bathroom with a compact shower and L’Occitaine en Provence amenities.
The Victory I has seven overall categories of cabins from two forward-facing, 335 square foot Owner’s Suites that share a private terrace and boast separate living rooms and bedrooms, a fully stocked mini-bar and complimentary laundry service to 160 square foot Category E ocean views with picture windows and located at the bottom of the ship.
Among the most sought out staterooms are the Category AA’s, which measure 166 square feet and are similar to standard outside cabins (categories B through E) but are accessed from outside via the promenade on Deck 4. Reminiscent of staterooms on the old steamer Delta Queen, these cabins are ideal in perfect weather for their proximity to the open air and a deck chair but can be challenged during inclement weather and bug infestations (early Spring).
The magic began that evening when we settled into a booth on the port side of the Coastal Dining Room. From a waterline perspective, we toasted the backlit Chicago skyline as Victory I began to cross Lake Michigan.
Note: our itinerary was slightly altered from the standard published one thanks to another ship being at Mackinac Island on our originally scheduled date. Thus, our second day cruising the Lake was replaced with a previously unscheduled call at Muskegon, followed by a day of scenic cruising before visiting Mackinac Island (in lieu of our originally scheduled call at Sault Ste. Marie).
As for the food, for the first part of the cruise, it was nondescript but improved significantly when the chef was switched out in Detroit. From the get-go, the service, however, was sterling and within a day or two, the doting staff was effortlessly remembering guests’ names as well as dietary and drink preferences.
Bay of Muskegon
I awoke at dawn the second morning as Victory I plied through a thick fog in the outer bay of Muskegon. She eventually tied up at the waterfront park, where guests headed off on included excursions to Windmill Gardens in the nearby town of Holland and to visit the World War II vessels USS LST 393 and the USS Silversides submarine.
A local friend took me to the museum ship SS Milwaukee Clipper, a wonderful streamline ferry that used to sail between Chicago, Muskegon and Milwaukee.
The lovingly preserved Clipper should be seen by all who visit Muskegon who have any appreciation for Great Lakes history and Art Deco architecture. Her interiors sport one of the world’s largest collections of Warren McArthur furnishings, which were specially commissioned for the ship in 1941, and there is a terrific museum in one of her former holds dedicated to Great Lakes passenger ships.
The following day “at lake” gave us a chance to ogle the Michigan coastline and get familiar with our ship and fellow guests.
A highlight was the Maharaja-themed tea in the Compass Lounge.
With members of the ship’s staff dressed to the nines in stylish uniforms and tea trays that included freshly made samosas among an array of Mughal-pastries, it was easy to imagine the Bay of Bengal instead of Lake Michigan beyond the picture windows.
Just prior to dinner, I headed topsides to brave a chilly wind as the Victory I approached the magnificent Mackinac Bridge, one of the longest, most graceful suspension spans in the world.
With a storm on the way, we were granted permission to berth at picturesque Mackinac Island that evening, well before our scheduled arrival the following day. I walked off dinner on the quaint waterfront — where no cars are allowed and the smell of fresh Mackinac fudge and horse droppings permeated the senses.
Back aboard, as the rain began, I settled in the Compass Lounge to listen to the ship’s band play country music. Each evening, the four-piece ensemble would take a stab at a different musical theme, from jazz to rock classics and regional folk songs.
A full agenda of excursions on the fourth day began with a horse-driven carriage ride from the waterfront up to the Fort Mackinac in a foggy, drizzle. After stopping at a lookout point called Arch Rock, we had time to wander Fort Mackinac and witness a cannon and rifle firing.
Our next stop was the famed Grand Hotel, which boasts one of the world’s longest porches, for an included buffet lunch. On the National Register of Historic Places, it was built in 1887 and is renowned for its romantic Victorian-era architecture and setting. The Grand Hotel Mackinac Island has been visited by no less than five sitting U.S. presidents and was the backdrop for several Hollywood movies, including the 1980 film “Somewhere In Time,” starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour.
Eventually, the skies cleared that afternoon, illuminating the charming island, its Victorian style architecture and spring blossoms at their finest. Back aboard Victory I, we enjoyed an engaging talk by the Grand Hotel’s historian Bob Tagatz, before sailing off into Lake Huron, where a magnificent sunset awaited.
Early on the fifth morning, it was all-hands-on deck as the Victory I began her approach to Little Current on Manitoulin Island, the largest freshwater island in the world. After passing seemingly endless vistas of Manitoulin’s meadow-fringed shores, the ship tied up at the tiny town. Once Canadian customs finally cleared the ship, most guests headed off on the included tour of the Church of the Immaculate Conception and the Ojibwe Cultural Center.
That afternoon, as Victory I departed, people lined both banks of the channel to watch her pass through the 1913-built Swing Bridge. We sailed through some of Lake Huron’s most beautiful scenery and past several lighthouses as the sun gently crossed the afternoon sky.
Our sixth day cruising Lake Huron allowed me to catch up on some needed rest and to take one of the bridge tours offered. This time, the afternoon tea was Viennese-themed with the requisite sweets and strudels.
With its well documented ails, Detroit doesn’t spring to mind as a valued cruise destination, so I was more than pleasantly surprised when we pulled up to its rejuvenated waterfront on day seven and tied up in the shadows of the massive GM building. Victory provided an included morning tour to the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in nearby Dearborn.
This remarkable site houses among its many attractions the Rosa Parks bus, the chair upon which Lincoln was assassinated and even the limousine that chauffeured Kennedy on his last ride through Dallas.
After lunch on board, guests had the option of a second included tour to the Detroit Institute of the Arts but I chose to catch up with local friends and enjoy a run along the waterfront.
For me, the big surprise and a key highlight of the trip was Cleveland on day eight. We began with a trolley tour of the city, which boasts world class architecture and numerous parks.
After stops in the Lake View Cemetery to admire its chapel adorned with Tiffany glass and a visit to the Cleveland Museum of Art, we were back at the ship for lunch.
Within walking distance were the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (Victory provides free admission) and the preserved Great Lakes ore carrier, William G. Mather, which frustratingly hadn’t opened for the season.
After a smooth crossing of Lake Erie that night, Victory I tied up at Port Colborne, Ontario, where we were shuttled off on a full-day venture that included a tour of Niagara Falls. AQSC’s parent company also owns Hornblower Yachts, which operate tour boats that sail right into the falls’ mist.
Guests on the ship had expedited access to this thrilling, wet venture before heading off to the Chateau des Charmes winery for a lovely included buffet lunch and wine pairing.
Part three of the tour was time on our own to shop in the quaint town of Niagara-on-the-Lake before returning to the ship midway through her transit of the massive and historic Welland Canal, which links Lake Erie with Lake Ontario.
That evening, we crossed Lake Ontario for Toronto, where we disembarked the following morning.
All in all, Victory provided a wonderful adventure filled with scenic and cultural delights. Great Lakes cruising on the Victory I promises to be one of the best options out there, all to be enjoyed without the hassle of long, overseas flights.
For more information, please contact Victory Cruise Lines.
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