Water, water everywhere… Jeannine Williamson heads for the Great Lakes

Setting sail on the world’s largest freshwater system with American Queen Voyages 

My inner child comes to the fore and I can barely contain my excitement as the jingly jangly music stops, the carousel slows to a halt and the frog comes into sight. Having waited two turns to get on I’m right at the front of the queue and as the attendant opens the gate I make a beeline for the somewhat incongruous creature while others head to rather more exotic tigers, lions along with traditional fairground horses.

The merry-go-round is in Greenfield Park, where a collection of original buildings and artefacts reconstructed on the site to portray American life in the 19th century. What’s unique about it is that Herschell-Spillman was the only carousel maker to feature a frog – or hop toad – and it’s the only roundabout animal you’ll see wearing clothes. It’s also one of many unique and idiosyncratic modes of transport I encounter during my time on, and off, the Great Lakes.

In Chicago I boarded American Queen Voyage’s Ocean Voyager for an epic journey taking in all five of the mighty lakes – Superior, Huron, Michigan, Erie and Ontario in order of size. The world’s largest freshwater system, containing around 20% of the world’s surface freshwater, there were many times when the journey to Toronto was just like being at sea, with no land in sight. 

When we do reach land – a mix of islands and cities on the American and Canadian mainland – there are daily excursions included in the fare and the option to embark on some optional tours that cost extra. In the ‘Motor City’ of Detroit, it feels appropriate to sign up for the trip to The Henry Ford, the Museum of American Innovation founded in 1929 by the namesake industrialist. Much more than just cars, although you can take a ride in one of his original Model Ts, the museum building next to Greenfield Park showcases all manner of extraordinary exhibits from domestic appliances through to bicycles, motorbikes, presidential limousines, planes and trains. 

Ford Original Model Ts

Biggest of them all (and which took three attempts to get into the building through specially widened doors) is the giant iron horse that is the 125-ft long Allegheny locomotive. Capable of pulling 60 freight cars each laden with 60 tons of coal it was one of the largest and most powerful steam engines ever built. It’s an incredible experience to clamber high into the cab and see the giant furnace that had to be constantly fed from its 25-ton capacity coal bunker which in turn heated water carried in an equally gigantic 25,000 gallon tank.

Allegheny locomotive

We could have easily spent more time at the museum, but we had to get back our mode of transportation for the week. The 202-passenger Ocean Voyager is a lovely traditional-style ship with a relaxed atmosphere and no strict dress code. Comfortable and casual is the way to go. All the cabins are outside-facing and in between ports there’s plenty of room to sit out on deck or in the Compass Lounge. Our favourite spots quickly became the terrace overlooking the front of the ship and the wood-panelled Tavern, where the bar staff knew our names and favourite tipples within a couple of days. Indeed, all the crew members were lovely and one of the many bonuses of small-ship sailing is that they have time to chat to you and get to know you. 

Wood-Panelled Tavern

Insightful daily port talks whetted our appetite for things to come, and the cruise director – a historian who also multi-tasked and played in the ship’s band – gave presentations and was joined by guest lecturers.

The visit to Valley Camp, a former cargo vessel that’s now a museum in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, really brought home the scale of the awe-inspiring lakes that reach depths of nearly 1,300ft and containing enough water to cover the entire lower 48 American states to a depth of almost 10ft. 

Valley Camp

Sights along the way are as diverse as they are enthralling. There’s Manitoulin, the world’s largest freshwater island which is considered sacred by the native Anishinaabe. An included tour of Ojibwe Cultural Centre, followed by spirited dancing and drumming provides a glimpse into the traditions of the First Nations people. In contrast, car-free Mackinac Island has a circumference of just over eight miles and if you’re feeling energetic you can cycle round it during the day in port. However, the main way to get around is on a buggy pulled by beautiful heavy horses – part of the biggest herd of 500-plus working draught horses in the world owned by Mackinac Island Carriage Tours.

Whichever way you choose to get around on dry land, one thing’s for sure. The small Ocean Voyager vessel is a wonderful way to discover this truly great destination.

Next steps 

Ocean Voyager, and its sister ship Ocean Navigator, sail on 11-night itineraries from Chicago to Toronto, or in reverse, between May and October with a nine-night cruise and two-night pre-cruise hotel stay. All-inclusive fares cover flights, transfers, all onboard meals, drinks, selected excursions and tickets to attractions, Wi-Fi and gratuities.

Silver Travel Advisor recommends American Queen Voyages. Call 0800 412 5678 to talk to our Silver Travel Advisors and book your voyage on the Great Lakes. 

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Jeannine Williamson

Award-winning travel writer

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