You’ve done grand cruises in the Mediterranean, criss-crossed the Caribbean and even cruised up the Amazon. Now’s the time to consider sailing from Chicago to Montreal by way of Detroit.
That’s the pitch of a new cruise company that’s betting a lot of jaded travelers who have “been there and seen that” are ready for a luxury cruise to behold the Great Lakes.
“This appeals to an audience who have traveled internationally, but haven’t seen the beauty of this part of North America. Global travel has expanded enormously and clients are looking for what’s new that is convenient and safe,” according to Tom Markwell, managing partner for sales and marketing of Haimark Line, a U.S. subsidiary of Haimark Ltd, that operates river cruises in Asia and Peru.
Of course, we’ve heard predictions about a surge in Great Lakes cruising before. If you’ve got a long memory, you’ll remember Haimark’s ship, the MV Saint Laurent, as the former Cape May Light. It was one of two ships built in 2001 for Delta Queen Coastal Voyages, which went bankrupt during its inaugural Great Lakes season. The 210-passenger ship has spent most of its time since in dry dock in Florida.
The company is spending $3.5-million on refurbishing the ship. That means starting over by stripping out all the old décor and replacing furnishings, carpets and wall covering as well as lighting, to create a luxury ship with four-star hotel standards, Mr. Markwell said in an interview.
“With the surge of small-ship cruising as well as an equal surge in the domestic cruise market, was there a realization that the vessel was an ideal choice for our initiative,” Mr. Markwell explains.
The ship will be managed my Miami-based FleetPro Ocean Inc., which also manages the expedition ship Silver Discoverer for Silversea Cruises. Mr. Markwell says they’re aiming to attract the same level of adventurous luxury clients on the Saint Laurent.
Selling points are multiple lounges: the Pinnacle Terrace, Cliff Rock Bar and Grill, the Seascape Pub and there is an open-bar policy that includes house spirits, wines and beers. Shore excursions are included and there is a complimentary 90 minutes of Internet time. Ipads are also available on loan.
The accommodations range from a snug 135 square feet inside to 400 square feet owners’ suites and the itineraries range from nine to 12 nights. It’s a premium product, as the lead-in price is $4,199 U.S.
To promote the launch, Haimark is offering travel agents a 15 per cent commission.
In addition to the Great Lakes itineraries, the Saint Laurent will be offering eastern Canada itineraries from Montreal to Portland, Maine and in the winter it will do Caribbean itineraries to lesser-known ports.
Great Lakes cruising remains a niche market.
In the heady days of the late 1990s, new ships were being built and there were predictions from the Cruising the Great Lakes organization of a boom bringing 10,000 passengers a year into the Great Lakes in 2001, with more to come.
Yet in 2014, just five cruise ships with a total of 6,000 guest-berths made 52 departures in the lakes. One of the ships, the Yorktown, was seized by creditors half way through the 2014 season
Here’s who else is sailing the lakes this year:
–The Pearl Mist, launched in 2014, carries 210 guests and is managed by the U.S. company that operates American Cruise Line. Its Great Lakes cruises from Toronto to Chicago include stops in places like Windsor, Parry Sound, Sault Ste. Marie, Mackinac Island and Holland Michigan.
—Blount Small Ship Adventures formerly known as American Caribbean Canadian Cruise Line has cruises on its Grande Caribe and Grande Mariner– both with a capacity of 100 guests– between Chicago and Toronto or Quebec City.
–The German-owned MS Hamburg, formerly the Columbus, is probably the largest passenger visitor to the lakes, carrying 420 guests. Catering to the German market, it returns in September, 2015 for a round-trip from Montreal that visits Toronto, Windsor, Milwaukee, Chicago and Traverse City.
Tours of the Great Lakes by ship go back a century but there have been some big gaps in service. After the Second World War, The Georgian Bay Line sailed the North American and South American on the lakes until cruises ended in 1967. Car travel limited the market for sightseeing cruises around the lakes until the 1990s.
One of the most famous passengers on the lakes’ Northern Steamship Co. ship North Land was Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain. In July, 1895, he sailed from Cleveland to Mackinac Island and wrote:
“All that has been said of this fine ocean ship on the Great Lakes is not exaggerated. Across Lake Erie to the Detroit River, Lake St Clair and the St Clair River is a most charming trip”.
Is this finally the moment that the world discovers the charm?
An update: Hitting the Wall
Haimark has officially cancelled all future Great Lakes cruises. The company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection for the Saint Laurent in November, 2015. In a statement the company said Haimark and the ship’s owners were working to resolve insurance issues stemming from an incident in which the ship incurred damages in the St. Lawrence Seaway in June, 2015. (All damages have been repaired.)
A separate division of Haimark continues to operate Asian river cruises..
The Saint Laurent ran into a lock gate protector on the Eisenhower Lock at Massena, N.Y. while up-bound from Montreal to Toronto on June 19, 2015. At the time, the ship was operating under charter to Paris-based Rivages du Monde and had on board 192 passengers and 81 crew.
According to the ship’s managers, Fleetpro Ocean of Miami, 19 passengers and three crew were taken to hospital, suffering from minor injuries sustained in the impact. While passengers spent the night on board in the emptied lock chamber, one passenger and a crew member were retained for further observation.
Damage was restricted to the bow and the Saint Laurent sailed under her own power, for repair at the Verreault shipyard at Les Méchins, Quebec,