For a great escape on the Great Lakes, try a cruise with added adventure


I love cruising. I know sometimes people hate the idea, but that’s usually because they’re imagining massive cruise ships the size of 10-storey blocks of flats, with onboard entertainment all cabarets, canapés and casinos.

My love of cruising, however, was cultivated by travelling on expedition ships, small vessels with hulls built to push through sea ice, kitted out with Zodiacs – rugged inflatable boats – that whisk you into tiny inlets in the ­wilderness. The kind of cruising that means you can go out hiking in the afternoon and return to a waiting crew ready to help you hose down your boots before the bartender mixes you a negroni.

So when I heard Viking’s two Polar Class expedition ships – the Viking Octantis and Viking Polaris, recent additions to its ocean and river fleets – were spending their summer season in the Great Lakes, it piqued my interest. Having already been lucky enough to have visited Antarctica and the Arctic, what would sailing the largest ­freshwater system on Earth be like?

Viking Octantis Great lakes Cruise

Explore the Great Lakes in style onboard one of Viking’s two Polar Class expedition ships

This colossal body of water in North America includes the magnificent lakes of Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie and Ontario, yet it is a region that has historically been underserved by cruise lines. But with Viking now operating the largest and most ­modern vessels here, that’s all changing.

Viking offers four possible routes – two of which take in Niagara Falls – but it was on the eight-day Great Lakes Explorer cruise, which would take us from Milwaukee on Lake ­Michigan, round the top of Lake Huron and across Lake Superior to Thunder Bay, that my husband Paul and I found ­ourselves.

Harbor view of Mackinac Island from Lake Huron

Lake Huron is a popular stopping point on the route

Credit: Getty/iStock

The Great Lakes are vast – their combined surface area roughly equal to the size of the UK – and with their winds, waves, currents, depths and distant horizons, you often get the impression you’re at sea. Nevertheless, this obviously isn’t an expedition cruise in the ice-crunching, berg-dodging sense – instead, it’s a blend of sightseeing, scenic sailing and high-octane excursions from your base. And what a base. Hosting just ­378 guests, Viking Octantis is super-stylish for an expedition ship, with the ­communal areas that include the Aula, an auditorium with soaring floor-to-ceiling windows, and the Hide (a ­challenge to find, but that’s kind of the point) – the perfect place to hole up in with a whisky after a day exploring the wilds.

Our first stop, however, was ­anything but wild. Mackinac Island in Lake Huron sells fudge by the boatload – an apt staple in a town that’s all sweetness and light, with quaint Victorian buildings and horse-drawn carriages trotting through car-free streets. More than 80 per cent of this lush island is a state park, and frankly it’s the sort of place where you half expect to see Jessica Fletcher cycling by, waving to fishermen. While a little twee for me, the flamboyant Grand Hotel, which boasts the world’s longest porch (660ft), is a fabulous place to sip a cosmopolitan.

Great Lakes Tour with Viking Cruises

The flamboyant Grand Hotel is famed for its record-breaking long porch

By day three we were gliding into the Unesco Biosphere Reserve of Georgian Bay on the north eastern arm of Lake Huron. At 120 miles in length, the Thirty Thousand Islands form the world’s largest freshwater ­archipelago, with the pristine shores of Frazer Bay, Killarney and Parry Sound waiting to be explored. This is also a wonderful spot for art lovers, cherished as it is by the Group of Seven, also known as the Algonquin School, a group of Canadian landscape painters who worked in the 1920s and early 1930s.

This trip also takes in the amazing man-made structures of the Soo Locks, a set of parallel locks that enables ships to bypass the rapid, roiling 21ft drop in the St Mary’s River from Lake Superior and Lake Huron. A truly impressive feat of engineering.

For me, the highlight of the entire trip was a day spent in the clear waters of Killarney, which began with the ­launching of a weather balloon (Viking’s two expedition ships are the first ­civilian ships to become official launch stations), after which we were able to watch the weather balloon’s data ­arriving in real time as it reached an ­altitude of 18 miles.

Viking Octantis Great lakes Cruise

Water-based activities offered to guests include kayaking

Credit: Viking

But that was only the beginning. Next, it was off to the Hangar ­(nicknamed the Toy Box): a Bond-esque treasure trove of cutting-edge craft, including two Military-Pro Zodiacs (jet-propelled Special Operations Boats which launch from an in-ship 85ft ­slipway), plus Arctic-tested kayaks and two submarines, each with six seats that take in the view through near-270-­degree spherical windows. Having taken plenty of Zodiac rides, Paul and I thought we would try two craft we’d never tried before; first the sub and then the kayaks.

The two yellow subs are called John and Paul (guess the names of those on sister-ship Viking Polaris), and after a strict safety briefing, we were off. Our sub pilot, chief officer Mark Andrews, explained the procedures with clarity, then we descended into the darkness. We travelled only about 60ft down, and weren’t treated to any particularly ­stupendous sightings (molluscs; a log – but it’s a lake after all, so you’re not going to find an octopus’s garden in the shade) – but it was nevertheless one of the most memorable experiences of our trip.


Jan enjoys the underwater view from a submarine

Next, the kayaks. Not the sporty type – rubbish at skiing, scared of horse ­riding and a scuba-diving disaster (I once had a training session at ­Amersham leisure centre and simply bobbed about like a confused cork for 10 minutes before throwing in the towel) – I was wary, but I needn’t have been.

One of the greatest joys of this trip is that you get to try something new under the supervision and tutelage of teams trained to take good care of you. They assess your abilities in advance, and while they’re positively ­encouraging, they don’t push you beyond what you’re capable of. And it turns out I was capable of more than I thought. With my ­husband sitting behind me in our two-seater kayak, and after a bit of ­splashing, we soon settled into sync and found ourselves gliding serenely across the sapphire water of a sheltered inlet: tranquil, magnificent and ­invigorating. Who needs a casino?


Viking Cruises (0800 319 66 60; has the seven-night Great Lakes Explorer journey from £5,795 per person, staying in a Nordic Balcony stateroom and including return flights from select UK airports, in-destination transfers, all onboard meals (including wine, beer and soft drinks with lunch and dinner), an included excursion in each port of call, excursions on kayaks, Zodiacs and Special Operation Boats and gratuities. Submersible dives are available on selected itineraries and incur an additional charge of $499 (£410) per person. Departs July 2024

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