Great Lakes Cruises that will Inspire you to Explore North America

Five inland lakes make up the “Great Lakes” in North America, and one of the best ways to explore them is by signing up for Great Lakes Cruises. The lakes include Lake Superior, Michigan, Erie, Huron and Ontario. They stretch across eight U.S. states and the Canadian province of Ontario, spanning over 745 miles. Together they supply an astonishing 20% of the fresh water of Earth, apart from providing a host of other uses like transportation and recreation.

The Great Lakes are truly beautiful and majestic. When considered as one vast body of water, the surface of the Great Lakes account for the largest body of freshwater on Earth. And cruises on the Great Lakes have extraordinary routes and stops on their journey.

What better way to explore the iconic cities, sites and passageways of these legendary waters than with a scenic cruise? A thrilling expedition will not only uncover some enticing destinations along the five historic lakes but will aptly showcase the breathtaking splendors of its coastline and its spectacular wildlife.

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Best Great Lakes Cruise Companies

A Great Lakes cruise is ideal if you want to see some of the United States and Canada and have time during late spring to early fall. These cruises are in the north, in areas like Michigan and Illinois, so take the weather into consideration when you book. With six cruise lines serving this region, this guide will assist in helping you make a call when deciding on the ships, itineraries and respective destinations to travel to.

Generally speaking, any cruise that sails within Michigan, or Illinois, or Wisconsin is sailing the Great Lakes. Many itineraries that go from Canada to New England, or the reverse, usually include Lake Ontario, which is to say the cruise itinerary includes at least one of the Great Lakes if not more.

If a cruise includes one of the Great Lakes, only, it most typically would be Lake Ontario, with a cruise starting or ending here, then sailing past the Thousand Islands in Canada, and onto the St. Lawrence River. (The St. Lawrence River stems northeast off the Great Lakes, passing Montreal and Quebec City.)

Viking Expeditions Cruises

This award winning cruise line has specially designed ships to navigate the remote Great Lakes destinations with the utmost comfort. Their expedition ships, Octantis and Polaris, will debut in 2022. While Polaris will sail Antarctica and the Arctic, Octantis will focus on sailing Antarctica and the Great Lakes.

These Class 6 polar ships can accommodate 378 guests in 189 staterooms. The cabins will be clad in modern Scandinavian design. All of the rooms will have a state of the art feature: a sunroom that can convert to an outdoor balcony where you can read, relax, and have a glass of wine, al fresco. The cabin's floor-to-ceiling glass windows lowers to become what Viking has named a, “Nordic Balcony.” They'll all have heated bathroom floors too. (An interiors perk we personally love after having visited Norway a few times; it's a common feature in hotels and homes in the country.)

Rendering of the Viking Expedition Ship, Viking Octantis.
Image courtesy of Viking Expeditions

There's an onboard pool and spa to enjoy on Octantis when you're not exploring the ports, and two restaurants (one Italian, the other Scandinavian-inspired). They offer 24 hour room service as well.

Four Viking Octantis itineraries will take you through North America's Great Lakes

Three of them are 8 days and one is 13 days:

  • Undiscovered Great Lakes, from Thunder Bay, Ontario to Milwaukee: An 8 day cruise that begins in Thunder Bay on Lake Superior and zig-zags through beautiful American cities, including Duluth, Minnesota and Houghton, Michigan. You'll experience an incredible engineering feat as you pass through the Soo Locks on the St. Mary's River, traveling from Lake Superior to Lake Huron.
  • Great Lakes Explorer from Milwaukee to Thunder Bay, Ontario: Visit three of the Great Lakes during this 8-day cruise, in addition to Canada's Georgian Bay. You'll pass through the Soo Locks on this cruise as well.
  • Niagara & The Great Lakes from Toronto to Milwaukee: The day after you embark on your cruise you'll visit Niagara Falls, and experience its majesty. From there you'll stop at ports like Detroit and Mackinac Island in Michigan before ending in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
  • Canadian Discovery from New York to Toronto: This 13 day cruise starts in NYC and takes you northeast on the Atlantic Ocean, including stops in Nova Scotia, the archipelago Sept-Îles, and Quebec City, before arriving in Toronto on Lake Ontario.
Rendering of the pool on the Viking Expeditions ship, Octantis.
Image courtesy of Viking Expeditions

PONANT Explorer Cruises

PONANT has been hosting exceptional voyages in the waters of the Great Lakes and North America for years in their high-end vessel, Le Bellot, which is one of their explorer ships. It can host up to 184 guests in 92 staterooms, which are contemporary in design and even have Hermès® bath products. They have two restaurants, The Le Nautilus and Grill Restaurant, and a spa onboard.

The “From Canada to the American East Coast” cruise sail they offer travels from Toronto to Gloucester, which is from Lake Ontario, through the St. Lawrence River, around Maine, and ends in Massachusetts at Gloucester, the oldest port in the United States.

Image courtesy of PONANT and Philip Plisson

Pearl Seas Cruises

This small cruise company offers trips on the Great Lakes aboard their vessel, the Pearl Mist. Each room comes with a private balcony and large picture windows. Apart from lounges, spas, fitness centre and onboard entertainment, guests can take part in optional shore excursions at each destination.

The Pearl Mist's open jaw itinerary for the Great Lakes starts in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and ends in Toronto, Canada. It also stops in:

  • Muskegon/Holland, Michigan
  • Mackinac Island, Michigan
  • Sault Sainte Marie, Ontario
  • Little Current, Ontario
  • Midland, Ontario

You'll enjoy Victorian towns in the United States and First Nations experiences in Canada along your eight day journey.

American Queen Voyages (Formerly Victory Cruise Lines)

The twin ships of Victory Cruise Lines, namely the Victory I and Victory II which will be renamed after the American Queen Voyages rebrand in September 2021, specialize in Great Lakes sailing trips. Each ship has just over 100 cabins and suites, which makes the guest capacity around 200 people.

Enjoy a pre-voyage hotel night, daily afternoon tea and cocktail hours onboard, and entertainment each night. There's also two dining areas onboard and a small spa and fitness area.

Victory I cruise ship, a Great Lakes Cruise, in port at Mackinac Island in Michigan.
Photo of the Victory I in port at Mackinac Island, Michigan, courtesy of American Queen Steamboat Company

They offer several itineraries for Great Lakes Cruises:

  • Montreal to Detroit (or the reverse): This 11 day cruise takes guests through scenic sailings on the St. Lawrence River, past Thousand Islands, over to Lake Ontario. From there experience Toronto and Niagara Falls before heading to the USA, to visit Cleveland and Detroit.
  • Lakeside Treasures: A 16 day cruise, starting and ending in Chicago, Illinois. Some stops include Muskegon, Michigan, on Lake Michigan and Thunder Bay, Ontario on Lake Superior. It includes a day of scenic sailing on Lake Michigan as well.
  • Splendor of the Great Lakes: An 11 day, open jaw itinerary that starts in Chicago, Illinois and ends in Toronto. It includes a day of scenic sailing on Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, a stop in Mackinac Island, Michigan, and the Canadian side of Niagara Falls.
  • Great Lakes Masterpiece: This cruise gives guests the option to do a 9 day itinerary from Niagara Falls to Chicago, or the reverse.
  • Great Lakes Grand Discovery: A 13 day itinerary that takes guests from Montreal, Canada to Chicago, Illinois, or the reverse.
  • Provincial Passage to New England: Travel from Niagara Falls to Boston on this 13 day cruise. Embark on your cruise in Niagara, heading north through Lake Ontario to the Thousand Islands in Canada. Travel onwards to great cities in Canada and America's New England region.
  • Canada's Southern Coast: Begin your journey in Portland, Maine and end 13 days later. Travel through New England and Ontario, Canada, as you encounter the Thousand Islands and sail into Lake Ontario. End with a grand finale at Niagara Falls.

Hapag Lloyd Cruises

Hapag Lloyd Cruises is a German cruise company that sails in the United States. Their ship, HANSEATIC inspiration, conducts cruises in both English and German. Conversely, their ship HANSEATIC nature, conducts cruises only in German. The ship was introduced in 2019, and can accommodate up to 230 guest; you'll feel like you're truly in the lap of luxury onboard. They have three restaurants onboard and offer flexible meal times, and have 24 hour cabin service.

They have two itineraries that cruise the Great Lakes:

  1. Toronto to Chicago: Board a ship to embark on a 12 day itinerary exploring four of the five Great Lakes. Dash between the US and Canada as you visit cities from Milwaukee, to Sault St. Marie, to Windsor.
  2. Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, to Toronto: This 18 day cruise will take you on an adventure along the western and southern coasts of Greenland, across the Labrador Sea to Canada. Explore several areas of Canada (including Newfoundland and Quebec) before disembarking in Toronto on Lake Ontario.
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What Each Great Lake Has to Offer

Each Great Lake has its own strength that may impact your choice of which one to visit. Overall, however, keep in mind that most cruises offer shore excursions. (Some include them in the cruise costs while it may be an additional item to budget for with others.)

The Great Lakes are truly incredible. They serve as much more than simply bodies of water, providing millions of people with water to drink and nature to explore.

Lake Superior: Outdoor Activities

Lake Superior is the coldest and clearest of all the five lakes. This is perhaps because of its somewhat remote location in the north. (It is the northernmost Great Lake.) It is known for its iconic rock formations, gorgeous agate gemstones and shipwrecks. Lake Superior shines like a beacon for outdoor explorers and nature buffs.

One of the biggest assets of Lake Superior is Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Its multi-colored sandstone cliffs and formations attract nature-lovers on Michigan's Upper Peninsula. The best way to enjoy the beauty of the towering rocks is by staring at them from the waterline. You can either kayak or take a Minising Bay lake cruise, departing several times a day.

Cities on Lake Superior cruise ships often visit include Duluth, Minnestora, and Thunder Bay, Ontario.

Lake Michigan: Adventure Sports

From wreck diving to parasailing and kayaking, there is no shortage of opportunities for adventure on Lake Michigan. Over thirty parks are located on the shores of this Great Lake and the islands that dot it. There are a number of stunning spots like Empire Beach, St Joseph and Grand Haven State Park for beach lovers.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore give rise to sandy dunes that reach a height of 450 feet above Lake Michigan. Here, you can swim in the lake, hike through the park or climb the dunes.

Great Lakes Cruises that visit Lake Michigan commonly stop in Chicago, Milwaukee and Mackinac Island in Michigan.

Lake Huron: Sand Dunes and Relaxation

Lake Huron is known for its sand dunes, wildlife and islands. Its extensive shoreline is rocky and the lake is home to over 30,000 islands. The Harrisville area may have a great stretch of sand beaches in the Michigan area (and a pretty white lighthouse, we might add), but St. Ignace serves as an ideal spot for a picnic or walk; it has great views of Michigan's Mackinac Bridge. Bruce Peninsula National Park in Canada, on the Georgian Bay shoreline, is also a popular destination with a grotto visitors enjoy.

It's the second largest Great Lake and the fourth largest lake in the world. The Strait of Mackinac connects Lake Huron with Lake Michigan.

The most common area that Great Lakes Cruises stop in on Lake Huron is Mackinac Island.

Lake Erie: Fishing and Birdwatching

This may be the smallest and shallowest of all the lakes but there is no shortage of natural beauty and wildlife in Lake Eerie. (You can see it while driving along the Great Lakes Seaway Trail, a National Scenic Byway. It goes from Lake Eerie to Lake Ontario.) While all the lakes have adequate fishing, Lake Erie is the most productive, with Yellow Perch, Rainbow Trout and Walleye being some of the top species caught here.

The Crane Creek State Park, in Ohio, and adjacent Magee Marsh Wildlife Area are a paradise for birdwatchers. Viewing platforms allow enthusiasts to spot several species at this wildlife refuge.

Detroit and Cleveland are common stops along Lake Eerie during Great Lakes Cruises. Niagara Fall is between Lake Eerie and Lake Ontario, and is also popular on Great Lakes cruise itineraries.

Lake Ontario: History Lovers

Lake Ontario is the eastern most of the Great Lakes and attracts about 13 million visitors a year. It is the smallest on a map, but its water runs so deep it holds four times the volume than its neighbor, Lake Eerie. (Its depth is also why it never freezes.) Historically, it has been used as a trading hub for centuries. Also, several Native American communities, including the Huron and Iroquois, still call the area home; their history is displayed in many of the local museums.

Toronto is on Lake Ontario, as is the Thousand Islands, both popular places of interest on Great Lakes Cruise itineraries. Cruise ships often sail from Lake Ontario to the St. Lawrence River towards Quebec, or vice versa.

Disclosure: There are affiliate links in this post, which means we may earn a small commission if you click the link and proceed with a purchase, at no cost to you. We only recommend products and services we personally use. 

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