BY DAVID RUNK
DETROIT — A massive freighter towers over the Grande Mariner as the 183-foot-long cruise boat slips past the Motor City skyline en route to Mackinac Island.
By the time the Grande Mariner and its 65 passengers reach Chicago four days after seeing Detroit, they will have traveled through the Erie Canal and four of the five Great Lakes.
It’s a journey of contrasts, with stops in reviving Rust Belt cities and quaint tourist towns, passing heavily industrialized stretches of the Detroit River and miles of unspoiled coastline.
The route is rich in history and natural beauty. And the trip is one of dozens of multi-day vacation cruises planned this year for the Great Lakes, from weeklong Lake Michigan coast excursions to fall leaf-peeping tours that stretch into the far northwest reaches of Lake Superior.
“It’s just beautiful travel and beautiful scenery,” says Roy Keith, the Grande Mariner’s captain, who for the last decade has taken cruise ships onto the Great Lakes.
Largely dormant since the 1960s as international air travel and tropical cruises increased in popularity and affordability, the Great Lakes cruise tradition began a revival in the mid-1990s.
For travelers accustomed to the massive cruise ships of the Caribbean and Mediterranean, the Great Lakes boats are modest. The pace is easygoing, passengers get to know the crew on a first-name basis and the scenery along the way — best seen from the top deck — is much of the attraction.
“When you travel by car, you’ve got to find those hot spots,” says Ryan McMullen, cruise director on the Grande Mariner. “When you travel by water, you just have to sit back and watch those hot spots come by.”
The trip on the Grande Mariner, which is owned by American Canadian Caribbean Cruise Line Inc. and can hold up to 100 passengers, began in the company’s Warren, R.I., home port. The boat passed by New York City and traveled up the Hudson River, heading through the Erie Canal and stopping in cities along the way.
After visiting Buffalo and Rochester, it headed to Cleveland before stopping in the Detroit suburb of Wyandotte. Many of the passengers got off the boat for an optional tour in Dearborn of The Henry Ford, which includes the Henry Ford Museum, a collection of auto-related and other technological and cultural artifacts.
Others, like Jan Musson, 69, of Goshen, Ky., stayed on board to read a book while her husband, Wick, 71, went on the tour. They took the cruise to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary and enjoy the chance to relax.
“You don’t have to think. It’s just very comfortable,” she said.
Since the Grande Mariner is so small, it can squeeze through the Erie Canal and dock in smaller communities like Wyandotte, as well as bigger cities, letting passengers off right in downtown. Cost varies by cabin size, with prices for the 16-day trip ranging from $2,785 to $3,840.
The Grande Mariner spends the summer in Lake Michigan before returning to its home port for fall color tours on the Erie Canal.
Tour options on different lines vary widely. Smaller boats carry up to 18 passengers on cruises that skirt Lake Ontario. And the MV Columbus — a 423-passenger ship designed especially for the Great Lakes — offers 11-day cruises between Toronto and Chicago that spend time in all five Great Lakes during prime fall color season.
On the Columbus, prices range from $2,139 to $6,190 per person, depending on cabin size and trip.
The Great Lakes and their connecting channels form the largest fresh surface water system on the planet. Travel promoters say the Great Lakes region, well-known for its recreational boating, stunning beaches and summer vacation towns, has the potential to attract more cruise ships.
More than a half-dozen ships have cruises scheduled for this year. The Great Lakes Cruising Coalition, which since 1997 has worked to promote the industry, said it would like to see about 60 of the about 130 cruise boats that can get to the Great Lakes via the St. Lawrence Seaway offering tours.
If You Go
• AMERICAN CANADIAN/CARIBBEAN CRUISE LINE: Eight cruises in September and October, with various itineraries on the Erie Canal, the Saguenay, Hudson River and Lake Champlain; accl-smallships.com or (800) 556-7450.
• GREAT LAKES CRUISE CO.: Fall foliage cruises aboard the MV Columbus from Chicago to Toronto, Oct. 11, and round-trip from Chicago, Sept. 30, with stops in Marquette and Mackinac Island, Mich., and various Ontario ports; greatlakescruising.com or (888) 891-0203.
• CRUISE WEST: French Canada and the Great Lakes tour, Sept. 11, from Chicago to Quebec City; cruisewest.com or (888) 851-8133.