New Victory II Great Lakes Adventure
By Judi Cohen (on Instagram @Travelingjudi)
Having lived on Lake Ontario for my entire life, it never crossed my mind that the Great Lakes could be a cruising destination. Until August, that is, when my sister-in-law Marla and I sailed aboard the newly overhauled 202-passenger Victory II for an inaugural 9-night sailing on the Great Lakes. This was a unique opportunity to experience both the challenges and the successes of a new launch, and a great deal of learning along the way.
We cruised through the St. Lawrence Seaway and Great Lakes system, including passing through a total of 17 locks along the way, starting in French Canada’s Montreal and Quebec City, followed by Kingston, Toronto and Niagara Falls in Ontario, and ending in Cleveland, Ohio and Detroit, Michigan in the United States. The food, alcohol and shore excursions were all included, which contributed to a relaxed vibe.
Most of the passengers aboard for this inaugural trip were from Canada and the United States. It was interesting how many of the Americans from Texas, North Carolina and Oklahoma had never been to Canada before, and had booked this cruise to satisfy their curiosity about the Great Lakes and the ports on the Canadian side of the border. Some also mentioned that they were attracted to this sailing because there was a low risk of getting seasick.
TheVictory II is a small vessel, just under 300 feet in length, with a maximum capacity of 202 passengers and up to 74 crew members. She was built in 2001 in Jacksonville, Florida, sailing for a time as the Sea Discoverer, before being refurbished and re-christened Victory II.
Bruce Nierenberg, the chairman of Victory Cruise Lines, was aboard and said Victory’s cruises were ideal for “experienced travelers, over 55, looking for premium non-mass market vacations.” He explained that because Victory’s two small ships are intimate, guests can actually get to know one-another. In my opinion, Bruce really got that right.
The ship has a comfortable, traditional feel with lots of wood paneling and velvet upholstery. I felt almost as if I was sailing in my own living room. There were no line-ups for dining with flexible dining hours generally starting from 7 to 8:30pm in the dining room, and the option of booking the upstairs Lighthouse Grille for 7 or 7:30pm seatings. We could be very casual on the ship generally and in the dining rooms. We did get dolled up a little for the night that we were invited to the Captains Table!
It was convenient to move around from one deck to the next to access dining, lounges, observation decks, the gym, the spa and the pursers desk which were all located next to a central staircase and elevator. I never needed a deck plan or directions to find anything. It was simple and intuitive. A welcome change from some larger ships I have sailed on.
Our beautiful cozy Ocean View Stateroom with twin beds and two large windows was located on Deck 1, the lowest deck for passenger accommodations. While it was relatively small (158 sq. ft.) compared to larger mainstream ships, it was very well designed with lots of drawers, closets shelves and a desk. Even with the two of us sharing (and considering that we each brought enough clothes and shoes for 6 months!), everything found a place without difficulty. I brought my own wire hangers to supplement those provided on the ship, impressing my sister-in-law with this travel trick I learned a long time ago.
The bathroom was quite generous with a large shelf below the sink that we found convenient for all of our toiletry items. I must say the shower was quite small with a clingy shower curtain, however the powerful water pressure more than compensated for that.
Our room and bathroom were kept immaculately clean with ample supplies of soap, shampoo, shower gel, fresh drinking water and soft fluffy towels, bathrobes and slippers. It was nice to have a hairdryer and a safe in the room as well. Our beds were very comfortable with crisp white linens and a choice of pillows. When I got into bed I had a better night’s sleep than I get at home in my own bed.
Pretty Public Rooms
The Great Lakes Lounge on Deck 2 is where the entertainment and presentations were held. With comfortable, plush velvety upholstered seating and small wood tables, we spent most of our leisure time in this inviting room. This is also where they served High Tea three times during our sailing.
The Whale of a Tail Tavern became very lively in the evenings when we were entertained with embarrassing Karaoke and dancing….and cocktails. We ended up in the bar every night to hear about everyone’s day and getting to know all the guests.
I’m pretty sure that I spent time with every single guest either on the ship or on our excursions, something that would have been unthinkable on the larger ships that I’ve been on.
Lounge chairs and other seating were available on both of the observation decks, ideal for enjoying sail-aways and the starry night skies.
The Victory Dining Room, located on Deck 1, provided open seating at varying sized tables. Mornings featured a plentiful buffet breakfast with many healthy choices including fresh fruits, yogurts, muesli, nuts, cheeses, meats and breads, along with custom orders of eggs. I enjoyed medium-poached eggs on toast most mornings. For lunch, there were several menu items, served French style, including soups, salads, mains and desserts. Dinner was also served French style with choices of soups, salads, fish, meat and vegetarian mains, as well as dessert choices. My favorites were the poached salmon, lobster tails, Caesar salad, tenderloin and the fine cheeses from Quebec. The service was a little spotty initially as the staff was getting used to the new ship and the menu, as one would expect, but every team member went out of their way to make our meals enjoyable.
The Lighthouse Bar and Grille located on Deck 4 was a lovely room with glass all around for a panoramic view. It was particularly special to have breakfast there at sunrise or dinner at sunset, the later which we did, enjoying a mixed grill of lamb chops, steak and salmon, brought out raw on a hot lava stone. We cooked the meat and fish to our liking before removing them from the stone. Reservations were required here, but it was never a problem to find a table.
Dr. Gloria Auchey, a professor English and communications from George Washington University, was the sole lecturer on board, giving several PowerPoint presentations about memory, personality and brain power.
What we would have preferred were experts lecturing about the ports and the seaway lock system. I found myself in many conversations with other guests, not familiar with the Seaway and Great Lakes, and curious about French versus English Canada. Providing reading materials or inviting destination experts on board would help to make this cruise a more enriching learning experience for everyone. A spokesman for Victory Cruise Lines says there will indeed be expert destination lecturers on board all future cruises to give talks about the history and culture of the ports.
When not exploring in port, a visit to the spa and/or gym was always an option; I enjoyed a relaxing facial treatment and even managed to hit the gym twice. There was also a galley tour, karaoke, a Name-That-Tune contest and other trivia games.
The Victory II Passengers
Most of the guests were well traveled and between ages 55 and 85; however there were many travel and cruise industry people from Canada and the United States who were much younger. The majority of the guests were retirees who have turned their focus to seeing the world, learn new things and enjoy wonderful food!
Only three passengers had physical limitations including Jane Ann who has macular degeneration and was accompanied by her husband and her guide dog named Sarge. Jane Ann made a presentation on the first day about her limited vision and her close relationship with Sarge, a beautiful black English Lab. She requested that we not play with Sarge unless we let her know first and then she would make an adjustment to her grip on his collar which magically gave him permission to be just a regular playful puppy and signaled to Sarge that he was “off duty.” The crew even placed patches of sod outside of the doors on a lower deck for Sarge to do his thing! We all loved having Sarge along on our shore excursions, during our meals and in the lounge areas.
Ports & Excursions
The most interesting aspect of this cruise was visiting all the various port cities and experiencing the many locks we maneuvered through. Our routine was similar each day with shore excursions in the morning and afternoon, and lunch in between, served either on or off the ship. All excursions were included in the cruise fares.
On Day 1, we boarded the ship in one of North America’s oldest cities, Montreal, and had a full day to visit. Starting with a city tour, we saw the bustling Old City of Montreal with its galleries, boutiques and restaurants set in stone buildings. The highlight was visiting the majestic Notre Dame Basilica and the architectural gems outside in the square. My jaw dropped at the deep blues in the intricate stained-glass windows and dome at the Notre Dame. I could have sat for hours just staring up.
But there was so much more to see including the views from our drive towards Mont Royal, the 20-storey high mural of poet and Canadian music legend Leonard Cohen, and the campus of McGill University. In a strange way, I felt as if I was carried back to Japan during our visit to the Botanical Gardens, with its pagodas and bonsai garden.
After lunch on the ship, we meandered through the streets of Old Montreal and along the vibrant carnival-like waterfront boardwalk before returning to the ship completely exhausted from the 95-degree heat. We gathered on the observation deck with cocktails in hand and sailed away, passing the site of Expo 67, with its few remaining structures, including architect Moshe Safdie’s cube houses and the United States Glass Sphere Pavilion, so that was a trip back down memory lane.
Quebec City, Quebec and Kingston, Ontario
I fully embraced our next two ports, Quebec City and Kingston, which tell the vibrant story of French and English Canada. Visiting the historical Plains of Abraham and a few stops in the only walled city in North America, followed by a walk across the top of the Montmorency Falls, provided a taste of this compact, hilly and cobblestoned city. Stopping at the castle-like Chateau Frontenac Hotel poised on top of the city provided a full panoramic view of the walled city and the waterfront.
By contrast, Kingston tells the tale of the British and Upper Canada. In addition to touring the early-19th-century Fort Henry, we were taken to the inner sanctum of the Royal Military Institute and allowed to walk on Parade Square before heading to the Kingston Penitentiary Museum. The storied maximum-security penitentiary once housed legendary prisoners like convicted mass murderers Paul Bernardo and Clifford Olsen. I can’t say I enjoyed seeing the old prison cells and the disciplinary equipment, but I left with a visceral sense of the harsh and lonely existence for prisoners languishing in their cells.
Visiting the Rideau Canal’s Kingston Mill Lock on a beautiful sunny day was a true highlight. It’s hard to believe that this UNESCO site, with its massive wooden gates, is still operated manually. As we watched the operation to let two small boats through the locks, one of the hundreds of the iconic Canadian Pacific trains thundered across the iron bridge directly over our heads. A truly Canadian experience.
The largest Canadian city we visited was Toronto. A bus tour in the morning took us past the Bay Street skyscrapers in the bustling financial district and Yorkville’s chic shopping district, with a stop at City Hall followed by a walk from the newly installed “Doggy Fountain” to the historic St. Lawrence Market. Hearing all the comments from other guests made me very proud of my hometown.
Some guests went back to the ship for lunch. I joined Sheila and Tom from Greenville, Texas, for lunch in Yorkville followed by a stroll along Toronto’s “mink mile” for a little shopping therapy. We then took an Uber to the Art Gallery of Ontario to rejoin the other cruise guests for a tour prior to returning to the ship through heavy traffic and sheer chaos in the downtown core. What a welcome to Toronto.
As we retired for the evening after our stop in Toronto, we were told that the captain would be up all night with his crew to navigate through several locks on the Welland Canal. Built in 1829, this canal links Lake Ontario and Lake Erie (lakes teeming with freighters) and provides a detour around Niagara Falls. Not unlike the lock we visited along the Rideau Canal in Kingston, Ontario, these locks use gravity and water as the lock gates are opened and closed. Unfortunately, we passed through the locks during the night. All we could hear was the bumping and creaking noises as the ship entered and exited each lock.
During the crossing of the lakes, we watched the huge freighters pass as we had dinner. When two giant CSL freighters passed very close to our ship, I pointed out to my sister-in-law that Canada Steamship Lines (CSL) was bought by our former Prime Minister Paul Martin.
Port Colborne – Niagara Falls, Ontario
In the morning, after our successful passage through the Welland Canal, we disembarked in Port Colborne and took a bus ride to Niagara Falls. I’ve been going there since I was a child, visiting dozens of times with friends and family. To be honest, Niagara Falls never gets old.
One of the older passengers told me that she specifically chose this Victory II cruise because she wanted to see Niagara Falls before she dies. I could feel the excitement and anticipation as we waited in line with our bright pink plastic rain ponchos to board the small boat, named the Hornblower, that would take us to the base of the US and Canadian Horseshoe Falls.
As the warm spray engulfed us, I heard squeals of sheer joy as we all tried to take pictures and videos without having our phones and cameras destroyed by the water. Nobody left the Falls disappointed.
We then drove to the Chateau Des Charmes Winery for a delicious lunch with paired wines, including Niagara Ice Wine. As if this wasn’t enough, we then carried on to the quaint city of Niagara-on-the-Lake for a nice walk along its main street that is just brimming with cafes, clothing boutiques, candy stores and ice cream shops, plus beautiful small hotels and B & B’s.
All in all, a spectacular day in the Niagara region, with its fruit trees, grape vines, wineries, theatres, shopping, fudge shops and small colorful restaurants. Two thumbs up.
Our first port in the U.S. was Cleveland. This city absolutely “rocked.” Not just because of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where I ambled for hours, enjoying musical flashbacks to my hippie days, but because of the rebirth that is evident in all of the city’s neighborhoods.
Welcomed by a local choir, and people holding up “Welcome to Cleveland” signs, we boarded “Holly the Trolley” for an open-air tour of the city. The historical West Side Market, dating back to 1912, was buzzing with food vendors and shoppers. I stopped at every bakeshop to carefully study the cupcakes, candies, breads, cookies and assorted colorful delicacies. I experienced sensory overload and loved every second of it.
Cleveland has many old iron bridges from all eras crossing the Cuyahoga River (referred to as the crooked river), that allow ships to pass through the inland waterways that serviced the industrial factories and warehouses. The abandoned warehouses are slowly being converted into cool hipster loft housing, all part of the recent transformation of the city.
Who knew Cleveland had a theatre district that is allegedly second only to New York City and a fabulous Art Gallery currently hosting the Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors exhibit. (So interesting, I didn’t know!) I tried buying tickets to see the popular play Hamilton and the Kusama exhibit, but unfortunately both were sold out.
I wondered why we were being taken to the Lake View Cemetery. I have been to Pere Lachaise in Paris to see Jim Morrison and Oscar Wilde’s graves and to La Recoletta Cemetery in Buenos Aires to visit Evita Peron’s grave, but I have never seen anything like the Wade Memorial Chapel in Lake View Cemetery.
Built in 1901, the centerpiece of the small chapel is a 9-by-7-foot stained-glass window called “Flight of Souls,” depicting the consummation of the Divine Promise, designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany (of Tiffany and Co.). It showcases his signature “favrile” method of layering translucent and opalescent pieces of glass to create rich, deep colours. Prior to being installed in this chapel, the piece won first place at the 1900 World Exposition in Paris. Presidents and numerous celebrities are buried in this beautiful cemetery.
I could have easily spent another couple of days in Cleveland.
Our last port along the Detroit River was Detroit, often referred to as “Motor City” for its rich automobile history. This is the home of Ford Motor Company, and the shiny glass “Oz-like” General Motors Building sits prominently on the waterfront near the port. It is also the home of Barry Gordie Jr., the founder of Motown Music.
While Victory Cruise Lines did not have any planned shore excursions in Detroit, a few passengers that I spoke with had made arrangements for private tours of the city. I stayed overnight in Detroit before driving home to Toronto and visited the Motown Museum and had a famous Coney Hot Dog at Duleys Place, made famous by the late Anthony Bourdain.
Most other passengers took taxis to Detroit Airport and boarded flights home. I hope they will one day return to see the revitalized Detroit with its iconic buildings, music and food.
Until Next Time ….
Warning: If you enjoy giant cruise ships with thousands of passengers and loads of onboard entertainment and shopping, this cruise is not for you. If you are looking for a small, comfortable, casual, hassle-free and intimate ship, Victory II is right up your alley.
What I loved about the Victory II was the absence of line-ups, the freedom and flexibility to dine when, where and with whom I wanted to, the family feeling among the passengers and with the staff, and the ease with which I could access all of the ship’s services from just one central staircase.
The unique St. Lawrence and Great Lakes itinerary took us to interesting cities characteristic of the regions on our route with ample time to explore both as part of the included excursions and independently. The food was outstanding with a nice variety of menu items and our room was cozy, clean and comfortable. I recognize that this was the inaugural sailing and, while yes, there were some hiccups that were irritants for some passengers — minor things like key cards not working and pictures to be hung — I expect these minor issues will be quickly corrected for future sailings. After all, this was the first opportunity to really unwrap this ship and unveil her beauty and services on the St. Lawrence and Great Lakes, an area not often seen from a small cruise ship.
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