A Great Lakes Cruise, Viking Expedition Style
Now that Viking has introduced its new expedition ships to the Great Lakes and Canada, it’s time to explore new territories.
The fun of sailing an expedition ship comes from visiting remote waters and participating in observation and research where few people travel.
Although the Great Lakes are in our backyard, they can be tricky to explore, given their size, limited land access, and distant corners. But here they are, front and center to many of North America’s largest cities and also full of remote wilderness sections.
Note: In our previous post about sailing the Great Lakes, we focused on Viking’s Octantis ship and the nature of expedition cruising. Check it out.
So, we continue the story of a Great Lakes cruise aboard the Viking Octantis ship with a look at the excursions and activities we experienced each day. We love some adventure in our lives, so the shore hikes and water activities were a great complement to the science laboratory and research activities onboard.
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Table of Contents
An introduction to the Great Lakes
To quickly set the stage, the Great Lakes span 4,530 miles of coast and account for 21 percent of the world’s freshwater, according to the NOAA Office for Coastal Management. Eight U.S. states and two Canadian provinces line the basin, which also includes several UNESCO Biosphere Reserves, seven U.S. National Park sites (counting two parks, three lakeshores, and two monuments), and dozens of Canadian National and Provincial Parks. Add to that countless local nature preserves, conservancies, and recreation areas.
The three most westerly lakes we cruised include some of everything, from the metro and industrial areas at the southern tip of Lake Michigan to the wilderness and unique eco-systems of Ontario to the north.
Historically, this is the land of First Nations, a fact recognized at most of our ports of call. Eventual fur trading routes led to the development of villages on the lake shores. Fishing, mining and logging were big business for small towns, and the transportation of goods across the Great Lakes has never ceased.
To explore the lakes in the comfort of an expedition cruise ship designed for polar waters of Antarctica, though, is thoroughly new.
The Great Lakes Explorer Cruise
Though Viking offers a flagship Great Lakes/Canada cruise covering all five lakes, we were perfectly content with the Great Lakes Explorer itinerary. This, starting in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and finishing in Thunder Bay, Ontario, covers Lakes Michigan, Huron, and Superior. Itinerary highlights include Mackinac Island, the Georgian Bay Biosphere Reserve, the Soo Locks, and the granddaddy of all freshwater lakes, Lake Superior.
True to form, Viking offers a range of activities at every stop, and nearly all excursions are included in the fare. The only tricky part is choosing and scheduling. Guests can book excursions, restaurant seatings and spa services in advance via the Viking Voyager site. The daily schedule is then available onboard via a phone app or good old-fashioned daily newsletters and briefings.
Submarines, SOBs, and Kayaks
All the off-ship fun is facilitated by the busy fleet of watercraft carried in the Octantis hangar. In total, she carries two yellow submarines, two military grade special operations boats, 15 kayaks, 17 zodiacs, and two tenders.
All of these boats have double duty: to assist in scientific research, and to shuttle, entertain, and educate guests, too.
The crew has dubbed the submarines ‘HMS Precious,’ for all the attention they get. Diving down to depths of 1,000 feet, the pilot is joined by six passengers. Three guests are seated on each side in a bubble with 270 degree spherical windows and rotating seats. While the underwater views in the Great Lakes may not impress, the subs are regularly discovering new marine life and contributing useful water monitoring. (A friend on the cruise posted this Facebook video which captures the submarine experience.)
Some of the excursions are scheduled in advance, but we advise attending the briefings early in the cruise. You’ll get a better sense of the physical requirements for each sort of craft, the necessary gear, and the limited time slots available.
Again, be realistic about your interest and physical abilities. Transferring to kayaks and the submarines from zodiacs can be tricky. The submarines, though tempting, are not for everyone. And all watercraft and activities are subject to change or cancellation as weather conditions dictate.
Otherwise, go ahead and have fun with these precious toys!
Milwaukee is a fun town to visit, so give it an extra day or two if you can. We love the Milwaukee Art Museum, (and other notable galleries), the 3rd Ward, the waterfront, Benelux restaurants, and summer festivals. Plus, you know, there’s beer here, and pretzels. We’ve added Kimpton’s The Journeyman Hotel to our list of recommended places to stay.
For now, the Octantis docks in the industrial area of Milwaukee’s port, but plans are afoot to build more elegant moorings on scenic Lake Michigan.
Mackinac Island, Michigan
We’ve been wanting to visit this Michigan enclave, famous for disallowing cars. Mackinac Island is strategically located at the narrows where Lake Michigan joins Lake Huron, near the spectacular Mackinac Bridge.
The bridge opened to traffic in 1957 and is 5 miles long, still one of the longest suspension bridges in the world. It connects Upper Michigan and the town of St. Ignace with Lower Michigan at the town of Mackinaw. (Both the island and town are pronounced Mack-in-awe, though spelled differently.) Both towns run regular ferry service to Mackinac Island.
By the way, if you drive north on Interstate 75 from St. Ignace, you’ll reach Sault Ste Marie and the locks in about 50 miles – a destination we’d reach by ship four days later.
Mackinac Island activities for Viking guests included kayaking (this with a local outfitter per regulations), a visit to the famous Grand Hotel, or walks about town and the island.
Our town walking tour took us off the main souvenir laden street to the parallel historic street. While we gazed at the historic buildings and dodged bikes and horse droppings, we learned about the history of fur trading here, and the power plays from French to British to American control. Island control was especially volatile after the war of 1812 until 1815, but the resident population remained largely intact.
Fort Mackinac, built by the French in the 1800s, can be toured separately, and many historic buildings and churches are open to visitors. The island is also crisscrossed with park trails. In fact, Mackinac was at one time a National Park, second to Yellowstone in the system but later reverted to a State Park.
I only wish I’d taken an earlier tender boat to the island to allow myself more walking and trail time. I missed the picturesque arch on the eastern edge, but did manage to pick up a box of Mackinac’s famous fudge.
Georgian Bay, Ontario
With three distinct overnight stops on the Georgian Bay of Lake Huron, this is where we launched the bulk of our expedition adventures.
The UNESCO Georgian Bay Biosphere Region, designated in 2004, encompasses some 30,000 islands, making this the largest freshwater archipelago in the world. The region is marked by bays, inlets, sounds, and islands along the Canadian bedrock shore, also known as the Canadian Shield. The forested mainland is a patchwork of hills, rocky outcroppings, and wetlands, known for its biodiversity.
With all the shore and island coastline – all that interface of water with land – the UNESCO region concerns itself with an assortment of issues: reptiles and amphibians, native people and cultures, climate change and conservation. This is the sort of place that makes marine biologists, geologists, ornithologists, and general naturalists – all of whom are represented on board – equally happy
The Georgian Bay and “Thirty Thousand Islands” area is also famous as the subject of the Group of Seven painters who made the scenery their landscape subjects in the early 20th Century.
Notably, once Viking Octantis sailed into Canadian waters, we were allowed to use the submarines, kayaks, and Viking expedition guides not allowed in U.S. waters. (Check out the United States’ Merchant Marine Act of 1920, a.k.a. the Jones Act, if you wonder why.) So in some ways, the adventures began when we reached the Georgian Bay and Ontario.
First stop in Georgian Bay was Parry Sound, home of the Biosphere administrative offices, a nice used bookstore, a smattering of historic buildings, and the Bobby Orr Hall of Fame museum. I missed all but the first, though I did take time to enjoy a local lunch at Turtle Jack’s Muskoka Grill across the street from the marina.
Cruise tips: As hard as it is to tear yourself away from the included buffet on board ship, it’s worthwhile grabbing a local meal and beer while you’re cruising. You’ll enjoy a new perspective and, with luck, a bit of conversation about current events with some local people.
The town of Parry Sound (pop. 6,400) is known for its deep natural freshwater port, and for being a hub in “cottage country,” a popular area for seasonal visitors from southern Ontario. (Surprisingly, Toronto is only about two and a half hours drive away. We seemed so far from all that.)
The Sequin River flows into the Georgian Bay of Lake Huron here at Parry Sound. The high trestle train bridge over the river at its mouth offers an iconic image of the town.
Birch Bark Canoe Excursion
Near Parry Sound we visited the Georgian Bay Anishinaabek Youth program. Though we expected this excursion would involve time paddling a birchbark canoe, we weren’t disappointed meeting the makers of the canoe and forgoing the paddle.
This memorable visit was filled with stories, starting with the land acknowledgement recognizing the Robinson Huron Treaty territory and the history of the First Nations people who live there. (Anishinaabek is only one of more than 30 First Nations involved in the treaty, signed by Objiwa chiefs in 1850.)
In very personal and emotional accounts, the Anishinaabek youth we met discussed the loss of cultural touchpoints, among them language and the communal canoes of generations past. Kyla, Dawson, Oscar, and Taylor are enthusiastically learning their language and rebuilding traditions lost when their parents were force schooled and generally disconnected from their families and culture. (The last of the residential schools weren’t closed until 1996.)
In 2018, the youth group decided to build a wiigwas jiimaan (birchbark canoe) after learning about the generations-old practice of keeping communal canoes on the nearby waters.
As they told the story the birch bark canoe, all the elements of learning, cooperation, discovery, and trial and error were expressed with pride and emotion. All of us listening understood the story is still being developed and the building of canoes and communities will carry on. A gifted tobacco pouch attached to one of the gunwales signifies the work still to be done.
Georgian Bay Biosphere Reserve Highlights
While in Parry Sound, we visited the Biosphere administrative offices and walked a bit while we discussed priority projects. A guide pointed out urban gardens and native species like sumac, white birch, milkweed, and maples along the Seguin River.
The small staff is doing significant work increasing threatened reptile and amphibian populations. A major project involving storage space in the office basement is saving endangered turtle eggs, collected primarily from roadsides or near construction sites. In office, the eggs are incubated and hatched before the tiny new turtles are gingerly re-wilded.
Beekeeping is a newer endeavor for the Biosphere staff. Their backyard apiary started with two to three thousand bees but will reach 50,000-60,000 by mid-summer.
The Georgian Bay Biosphere Reserve staff is making great strides. (By the way, the reserve runs on donations; UNESCO designation comes with more responsibilities than dollars.)
Besides the bee and turtle work, the Biosphere Reserve projects include monitoring water, planting for pollinators, reptile rehabilitation, and creating safe, eco-crossings for snakes and turtles. Fence barriers have been installed along many roads, and now underpasses (with skylights!) are being built to create natural access across roads for snakes.
Other excursions in Parry Sound included nature hikes in Killbear Provincial Park.
The second stop in Georgian Bay was off the little town of Killarney (population less than 500). This gateway to the wilderness area of Killarney Provincial Park is also home to Killarney Mountain Resorts, which hosted a classic shore fish fry for Viking guests.
We chose to hike from Killarney to enjoy some fresh air. Both hiking excursions, the lighthouse trail we chose and the Chikanishing Creek trail are easy to moderate, guided by Viking. Though I didn’t time the lighthouse trail, it was under two hours with plenty of stops to take in views of the ship from shore, pictures at the lighthouse, and close-up views of Lady Slippers and other wild flowers.
Other guests hung out at the resort, participated in kayaking or submarine activities, or snuck in some quiet time at the spa.
While all of Georgian Bay was subject matter for the Group of Seven’s landscape painting, this area feels particularly inspiring.
Not far from Killarney, Frazer Bay is tucked into a little corner of the sound between mainland Ontario and Manitoulin Island. Manitoulin is the biggest lake island in the world, large enough that it holds 100 lakes of its own.
The hike we chose here was to AC Cassen Peak, named for one of the Group of Seven Artists. The hike’s head was well hidden, up a channel about 20 minutes from the ship’s anchor, accessed by zodiac. The rocky, forested hike requires a bit of scrambling, but is so rewarding, with amazing views of the Georgian Bay to Manitoulin island beyond.
Other shore options near Frazer Bay included a less demanding Portage Trail hike, or a leisurely afternoon at the Okeechobee Lodge. Several guests lucked into spontaneous helicopter rides piloted by the resort owner.
Excursion tip: If you have any mobility or balance or endurance issues, avoid the hikes. Trails can be rocky, slippery, steep, or all of the above.
Leaving the Georgian Bay to sail through Lake Huron into Lake Superior requires a full sailing day. Everyone is happy to spend some leisure time onboard and anticipate the daylight passing through the Soo Locks at Sault Ste Marie.
Silver Islet, Ontario
Silver Islet excursions were a highlight for many of us on board. We were met there with good weather: a lovely, sunny morning and calm waters. The picturesque rocky shore is great fun to trace by kayak. I realized I’d half expected my turn to kayak would be cancelled due to rough Lake Superior waters, so I was thrilled to don my dry suit and start paddling.
Silver Islet refers to a little town and to the historic tiny island that was, impossibly, the site of a functioning silver mine for 16 years, from 1868 to 1884. Though the islet, just a few feet above sea level, was expanded and barricaded against lake waters, it’s hard to imagine how silver was discovered, much less how a deep shaft (eventually over 1200 feet) was constructed down through the lake bottom. The mine relied on pumps to extract water while miners worked, right up to the point where a shipment of required supplies was delayed. The mine filled with water, never to be excavated again. Today, Silver Islet is a non-descript mound of rocks with a couple trees growing up…and some underwater relics of the mine structure.
The old mining town lives on in the form of a general store and handful of houses. Viking guests enjoyed chatting up the locals and buying souvenirs.
Get your cannabis here if you are so inclined, but don’t even think about carrying any outside of Canada. The Thunder Bay airport personnel are sticklers even about your few ounces of shampoo. And no carry-on walking sticks, thank you. My early departure precluded me from sightseeing in Thunder Bay. Judging from the small crowd gathered to see Octantis dock, the periodic visitors are most welcome here.
Viking Octantis Onboard Adventure
By its nature, this Viking expedition ship offers lots of programing for the curious minded traveler.
Weather Balloon Launch
We weren’t going to miss this 7 a.m. launch of a NOAA weather balloon. We grabbed early coffee and headed up to deck 6 where we were shown up to the launch area above. (Deck 6, by the way, is worth exploring for even more open-air lounging space.)
All 103 weather balloons around the world are launched at the same hour. After waving farewell to the helium filled balloon and attached radiosonde, weather nerd guests like myself gathered at Expedition Central on deck two to watch live readings fed back to the ship.
Part of the adventure onboard Octantis is listening to expert scientists and explorers share their experiences. Daily briefings outline the options for the next day’s destination. Resident geologists and ornothologists preoved welcome context to the mysterious Great Lakes region. Documentary films entertain and inform guests on subjects related to Viking Expedition cruises: humpback whales, glaciers, national parks, North America from the Yukon to the Golf of Mexico, and marine life.
The Aula is designed after the lecture hall at the University in Oslo, with copies of the artwork on the massive shades which can be draw for screened presentations.
The Aula’s atrium is also a meeting point for visits to the laboratory and the hangar, stocked with coffee and water. The walls are lined with illustrated quotes from classic travel and explorer titles. Good fun while you are waiting for your activity is to count how many you have read.
My Life as an Explorer, by Roald Amundsen
In Patagonia, by Bruce Chatwin
On the Road, by Jack Kerouac
Call of the Wild, by Jack London
Seven Pillars of Wisdom, by T.E.Lawrence
A River Runs Through It, by Norman Maclean
The Voyage of the Beagle, by Charles Darwin
The Travels of Ibn Battutah, translated by Tim Macintosh-Smith
The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupery
Walden, by Henry David Thoreau
Life on the Mississippi, by Mark Twin
A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, by Eric Newby
In Remembrance of Things Past, by Marcel Proust
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, by Samuel Taylor Cooleridge
And we’ll add a fifteenth title, written by the ‘godmothers’ of Viking Octantis and Polaris respectively: No Horizon Is So Far, by Liv Arnesen and Ann Bancroft.
The Nordic Spa and Gym
The Nordic spa facilities reflect the ship’s style and purpose and should not be skipped! Large windows bring natural light and views to the huge spa pool, and a separate hot tub is sheltered in an open air nook. After whirlpools or sauna or steam room, cool off Scandinavian-style in the snow grotto or under a bucket of cold water. Bracing and invigorating and makes the skin feel wonderful!
Dining and Decompressing
We could really lead this post with a survey of the restaurants and lounges on Viking Octantis, as this is an essential part of the expedition cruise, a place to enjoy fresh destination-focused dining and to share stories of the days’ adventures.
The central open kitchen of the World Café features cooked-to-order choices as well as buffet dishes and nightly sushi choices. The open kitchen allows guests to see how fresh the fare is, to interact with cooks, and to make special requests as need. It’s a truly impressive operation producing top notch cuisine. Oh, and there’s 24-hour bakery, too, and 24-hour room service.
Two restaurants require reservations, and we recommend trying both early in the week. Manfredi’s is a wonderful Italian trattoria with an adjoining private dining room. The Restaurant’s menu changes frequently based on fresh local ingredients.
For a change of pace, visit the quiet Mamsen’s for Norwegian waffles, open-faced sandwiches and split pea soup.
Besides the popular Living Room spaces with live music, we enjoyed taking our meals or drinks in the Aquavit Lounge or, later at night, in the Hide.
Packing for Expedition Cruise
We tend to pack light, with layers, quick dry clothing, and just enough gear to make hiking or water sports comfortable and safe. Here are some tips specifically for the Viking Expedition Great Lakes cruises.
Remember, it’s chilly in these northern climes and even colder when out on the lake in fast boats or brisk winds.
Viking thankfully, doesn’t bother with formal evenings. Casual attire will suffice, so there’s no need to bring those fancy shoes. We dress for the day’s outdoor activities, and then freshen up and change shirts for dinner.
Good gripping hiking shoes or boots, like my La Sportiva trail shoes.
Comfortable slip-ons or boat shoes for wearing about the ship or transferring shore. I packed my Oofos, also available in a comfortable flip-flop.
Sandals. I love good sandals with defined arches, all the better to stand or walk in all day.
2 long-sleeved collared shirts, and even better if their properties include sun or insect protection, like our Jack Wolfskin shirts.
2 short sleeve t-shirts. One of mine, the Haeleum by Northfork Gear, is insect-repelling
2 long-sleeve t-shirts. I pack at least one that provides sun protection.
Swimsuit for spa and thermal pools
Sweater and/or activewear zip-up layer
Socks, underwear, bras/sport bras
Scarf for warmth and style
Neck gator. For warmth or for dust/pollution protection.
Sunglasses (Rx and regular) and Contact lenses
Bug repellent, thought Viking kindly offered some at the beginning of each hike
Personal first aid kit
Walking sticks. Viking provided hiking poles to those that wanted them, but I found the rocky trails weren’t conducive to using sticks.
Formal wear. No need.
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