A Superior destination

Victory Cruise Lines is set to put the five Great Lakes on the cruise map following its acquisition by American Queen Steamboat Company earlier this year. Jane Archer joined one of the first cruises under its new ownership to find out more

There are two words on everyone’s lips as we sail across Lake Michigan. Mackinac Island. It’s the next stop on our Great Lakes cruise and the place, I have just learned, that every American aspires to visit because it is a slice of Victoriana in the US.

There are horse-drawn carriages (cars are banned from the island), the main street really is called Main Street and lined with wooden shops selling fudge and souvenirs. It’s Disneyland without Mickey, but had he come strolling down the road I would not have been surprised.

I’m travelling with Victory Cruise Lines, a US-based company acquired earlier this year by the American Queen Steamboat Company (AQSC), which operates paddlewheel boats on the Mississippi, Columbia and Snake Rivers.

Now on sale through Cambridge-based Light Blue Travel, Victory is a great option for agents looking for something new and different to excite clients. Because this cruise is certainly very different, dipping in and out of small towns and flyover cities in the US and Canada that don’t figure on most Britons’ tourist radar (all bar two of the fellow passengers on my cruise were from North America) but are definitely worth more than
a second glance.

The line has two identical 202-passenger ships sail the Great Lakes between May and October. Victory I offers ten-night cruises between Chicago and Toronto, Victory II’s sailings are between Port Colborne (for Niagara Falls) and Chicago, and are mostly eight nights. 

Following the acquisition, the ships went for a $3 million refurbishment to bring them closer to standards of the rest of the AQSC fleet. Among the changes, The Grill on Victory I was enclosed (it already was on Victory II) and refurbished to provide an all-weather dining venue, the dining room was given a more stately look, shades were installed on the sun deck and beds were fitted with super-thick mattresses.

For winter 2020, when the weather on the lakes is cold and often stormy, the ships will relocate to America’s Eastern Seaboard and Mexico, to sail the Yucatán Peninsula round-trip from Cancún. “We do things we can be the market leader in,” said AQSC chairman and chief executive officer John Waggoner. Schedules were due out as Cruise Adviser went to press. 

Starting in 2021, AQSC is also chartering new ship Ocean Victory to offer cruises to Alaska. “Our aim is to have something for all ages,” Waggoner said. “Adventurous travellers in their 40s can cruise with us to Alaska and, as they get older, they can progress to the Great Lakes and Mississippi.”

Exclusive for the UK, Light Blue Travel has a 40-day holiday combining a cruise on the Mississippi from New Orleans to Minneapolis with a ten-night Great Lakes voyage from Chicago to Toronto.

The Great Lakes certainly live up to their name, covering an area the size of the UK and Northern Ireland and containing one-fifth of the world’s fresh water. There are five lakes – in size order: Superior, Huron, Michigan, Erie and Ontario – that are all linked by rivers and waterways. On both Victory itineraries, you sail on them all.

The itineraries are brilliant, the ships are comfy (cabins are small, but the service and food was impressive) and prices include all drinks, which makes life on board convivial. Ashore, there is much to enjoy.

We clip-clopped around Mackinac Island in a horse carriage, watched a pow-wow dancer tie herself up in hoops (as impressive as it sounds) on a Native American Reserve in Canada’s Little Current, and listened to chart-topping hits in Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. From Detroit, we headed to nearby Dearborn, to visit the Henry Ford Museum, where prize exhibits include the chair President Lincoln was in when he was assassinated in 1865, the car President Kennedy was in when he was shot in 1963, and the bus Rosa Parks was on in 1955 when she refused to give up her seat to a white passenger, sparking the start of the Civil Rights movement in the US.

Excursions are included, along with gratuities and a pre-cruise hotel stay. Light Blue Travel packages cruises with flights and transfers.

A ten-night Chicago to Toronto sailing departing May 20, 2020 costs from £5,495 per person; eight-night sailing from Port Colborne to Chicago departing May 6, 2020 costs from £4,895 per person. British passport holders sailing from Chicago to Toronto only need a US ESTA; those starting their cruise in Toronto need a visa for Canada in addition to the US ESTA. 

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