Niagara and The Great Lakes cruise from Milwaukee to Toronto onboard Viking Octantis

By Chris Caldicot

Octantis is one of the latest additions to Viking’s fleet of River and Ocean craft. Like her sister ship Polaris she is classed as an Expedition Ship, principally designed and kitted out for profound voyages of discovery to Antartica. During the southern hemisphere winter they both sail north. They are built just slim enough to pass through locks of the St Lawrence Seaway and pioneer new routes for an ocean cruise vessel around The Great Lakes of the US and Canada.

US Shore Leave

After boarding Viking Octantis in Milwaukee, I joined a cultural morning excursion to the city’s futuristic Modern Art and iconic Harley Davidson museums. I then headed on my own for the wide planted sidewalks around the Public Market in the historic Third Ward port district. Here I joined a friendly crowd of locals enjoying the laid back sunny Saturday afternoon vibe among street food stalls, cool cafes, craft beer bars and fashionista boutiques.

Our voyage began as the shadows lengthened, when passengers were invited to the bow to sip welcome cocktails as Octantis sailed out under the Hoan Bridge into the great wide open of Lake Michigan.

The Great Lakes of Michigan and Huron are divided by the a strait between Michigan peninsulas spanned by the mighty Mackinac Bridge. When it was opened in 1957 it was the longest suspension bridge on earth, it’s now down to fifth but still inspired gasps of awe on board as we sailed under it just after dawn.

The wooden piers of Mackinac Island creaked under the weight of day trippers and tourists arriving on a summer holiday weekend in bright morning sunshine under cloudless blue skies when our tender draped us off. I spent my morning on State Highway M-185 (the only car free one in the USA) exploring the island by bike on the idyllic coastal circular road cycling past quaint houses sporting classic Americana paraphernalia, surrounded by woodland and looking out over the crystal clear waters of Lake Huron teaming with salmon and trout.

The island’s port could be accused of a contrived perfection, like something out of the Truman Show with fudge shops, The Grand Hotel above it though, is the real thing. An elegant Victorian era grand dame straight out of The Great Gatsby with its lofty white wooden verandas supported by Greek revival columns. It is festooned with enormous American flags fluttering in the sea breeze and surrounded by manicured lawns with a taxi service of horse-drawn carriages driven by men in top hats and tunics.

Mooring off Alpena on the west shore of Huron the next day, we find a sleepy backwoods town of the Mid-West. The big attraction here is fishing out on the lake onboard Ernest Hemingway style skiffs, festooned with a seriously daunting amount of high tech fishing kit. We zoom off into open water and return with an impressive bounty of flapping, fresh giant lake trout for lunch.

By contrast our next stop, Detroit, is a bustling hive of activity. The city skyline appears like a shiny apparition of post modern and art deco skyscrapers as we navigate our way down the narrow straights between Huron and Erie. Stars and stripes on one bank and maple leaves on the other. The glory days of this ‘Motor City’ are celebrated in the Henry Ford Museum of Innovation. I was glad to find that it is actually much more about retro innovation rather a warts and all journey into the American Dream rather than just cars.

Life on Board

There are no long sea days on this cruise, so making the most of facilities on board Octantis like treatments in the Nordic LIV Spa, or exploring the generously stocked library of the Living Room, are largely evening activities. As are sundowners in the Explorer’s Bar, or savouring the eclectic cuisine served in the ship’s many restaurants. Dishes ranges from authentic Indian curries and Japanese Sushi to Italian Risotto and Thai noodles with plenty of juicy steaks, wood-fired pizzas, fresh seafood, healthy salads and sugar-free ice cream in-between.

The appropriately-named The Hide is a hard-to-find den in the bow with a designer chic interior of floor to ceiling windows that descend into the water. Stunning pencil renditions of worn woollens by Norwegian artist Hanne Lydia Opøien Fiegenschou, are framed on the walls. By day it’s easy to have the whole place to yourself. Most evenings those in the know gather to listen to fireside tales of adventure, related by members of the onboard expedition team. The added attraction of a pop-up bar serving single malts and barrel-aged bourbons ensures an excellent turn out, so arrive early for a good seat.

The art in The Hide is part of the inspirational collection of curated art, photographs and sculpture exhibited throughout the ship, including the staterooms. These all feature uniquely designed ‘Nordic Balconies’ of floor-to-ceiling glass with a top section that can be lowered to create a sheltered, al fresco lookout. The drying cabinets are handy but are really used for the Antarctic cruises as are some of the ‘toys’ in the ‘Hanger’. This industry first vast in-ship marina with hydraulic shell doors hosts high powered Zodiac RIBs, expedition kayaks, military grade Special Operations Boats, (launched via an 85 ft. stern slipway) and two super high-tech yellow submarines, named John and George for taking guests on sub aquatic adventures.

There are some serious on-board scientific research projects in partnership with several international Institutes. In the glass enclosed Lab passengers can join onboard scientists analysing samples of sea water for micro plastics using state of the art Leica microscopes. The science team deliver evening lectures in the Alula, a stunning auditorium at the stern featuring a retractable 4K laser screen. It is lowered for daily briefings, films and lectures and raised to reveal panoramic 270 degree views through double height windows.

Life on board Octantis is a global village. During the voyage I interacted with an Argentine geologist, Brazilian barber, Costa Rican kayaker, Norwegian navigator, South African biologist, Indonesian steward, an Armenian waiter, several of the Philippine crew and Vietnamese barman. There are distinctive Scandi touches like the snow grotto and alfresco Badstamp hot tub in the spa, murals of huskies and the superb salty mature Thybo cheese served in Mamsen’s at breakfast.

A promenade deck from the trio of different temperature infinity pools outside the Aquvit Bar and terrace above Alula wraps around the ship descending to the bow, making it possible for a quarter mile circumambulation of the ship, a good start to any day at sea or lake!

Canadian Shore Leave

After a seamless crossing to the Canadian half of Lake Erie overnight, we are back in rural wilderness. I join trips around the Canada’s most southern peninsular of Point Pelee in kayaks and zodiacs and onboard one of Octantis’s military grade Special Operations Boats. This wetland National Park is a paradise for birdwatching, water sports and beach barbecues.

Our cruise highlight came the following morning when we were transferred to small boats to ride right into the horseshoe-shaped cauldron of the Niagara Falls, where Lake Erie makes a vertical 160 foot plunge with roaring furry into Lake Ontario. It was a fittingly spectacular finale to a memorable expedition ocean style cruise exploring the world’s largest lakes.

There was still one more treat to come though, Octantis had to descend the same 160 feet to Toronto. With inches to spare, the crew aided by Canadian pilots negotiated 8 giant locks of the 27 mile long Welland Canal. Passengers were once again invited to the bow this time to sip end of voyage cocktails as we squeezed through the first couple of locks and admired the view of the Toronto skyline far below us. It was almost dawn by the time we past through the other six and docked in the city harbour.

Next steps:

Take a look at Viking, and to book your Great Lakes cruise (or any other Viking river or ocean voyage) call 020 8780 8596.

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