Graet Lakes Cruising, German style
Cruising the Great Lakes on Hapag Lloyds’s Columbus By Miketap The German line HAPAG-Lloyd, has made some efforts in recent years to make its cruises more attractive to English-speaking guests by offering dual-language cruises (German + English). This means that all announcements, daily programmes, menus and lectures are provided in English as well as German. Staff are without exception English speaking, indeed the lingua franca of the many Filipinos on board is English. HAPAG Lloyd are replacing Columbus with Columbus 2 (bought from Oceania, where she has been sailing as Insignia) next May. Columbus was built to dimensions that permit access to North America's Great Lakes, specifically a beam of 75 feet, which permits her to pass through the locks in the Welland Canal between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. Columbus 2 is too wide for this, so the 18 September 2011 sailing from Chicago to Toronto was the last Great Lakes cruise made by HAPAG Lloyd. We thought this was an opportunity we could not miss, and booked in summer 2010, securing the last stateroom. This was 305, right forward, with two portholes rather than a window. As we found out, sleep was not possible if the anchor was being raised or lowered, or if the bow thrusters were in use. We had to adapt to some late nights and early mornings because of this on occasions. Otherwise, being well away from the engines, the stateroom was very quiet. There were 13 passengers classed as English speakers (4 from Great Britain, 4 from Canada and 5 from the US), with the remaining 390 from Germany (or German speaking countries). We had two tables in the restaurant, and once our own bus on a shore excursion, but obviously the German language predominated, although the English promises were delivered most of the time. However we were addressed in German all the time (at least until staff started to recognise us), so it is helpful if you can understand basic phrases. Most of the German passengers were English speaking, and quite a few were keen to practice their English when they realised we were from the minority. We took advantage of the good-value special package, that for EUR 260 covered all gratuities, three English-language shore excursions, and all drinks from a selection of 81 in the bar menu (including table wine). The restaurant was single sitting, with all passengers dining at 7 pm (alternative self-service dinner in the Palmgarten lounge). Food was ample and good quality, but perhaps not as varied as some lines (if you are vegetarian, choice is very limited, though it was good to see fresh fish brought on board locally to enhance menus) – you need to enjoy veal and pork! Entertainment after dinner was provided on several nights, with a classical pianist, mezzo-soprano, folk duo and some local talent on board. The five-piece band in the lounge was excellent, and mostly steered clear of Oompah music. There was a dance floor, but few used it. Dualling as a bar and show lounge meant that bar service was somewhat protracted when seats were full. The crew choir performed after the farewell dinner, and were backed up by the captain singing Wild Rover in a passable Irish accent. There was a small gym on board, up high with sea views. There was a small library, but it had some English fiction. E-mail was free on four computers, but internet access slow and expensive. The on-board lecturer was excellent, with separate German and English lectures, covering everything you could want to know about the Great Lakes and their place in the US and Canadian economies and culture. The Great Lakes of North America are collectively the world’s largest fresh water area. Lake Michigan is wholly within the USA, but lakes Superior, Huron, Erie and Ontario are divided between the USA and Canada. Lake Superior is 600’ above sea level and Lake Ontario 243’, hence the need for locks to enable ships to travel through the lakes system. One set, the Soo Locks, links Lake Superior and Lake Huron, while the eight locks of the Welland Canal link Lake Erie and Lake Ontario (the Welland canal is the Niagara Falls by-pass). The optimum cruise is Chicago to Toronto or vice-versa, enabling all the lakes to be visited (with a double run through the Soo Locks to access Superior). This was COLUMBUS’ 2011 itinerary. The other factor, to avoid en-route immigration hassle for passengers, is that US ports need to be completed before Canadian ports (or the other way round). Chicago is an impressive departure point, and if time allows you can easily occupy yourself for two or three days soaking up the art, architecture and shopping. A river cruise is highly recommended. The restaurant scene is pretty amazing too, but if you want to get into the hot spots on Friday or Saturday nights, advance reservation is recommended. The cruise departs from the historic Navy Pier, with delightfully informal boarding and security procedures, comprising a desk, a chair and some cones to guide you to the gangway (and keep the felons at bay). As you sail out onto Lake Michigan, the city skyline forms an impressive backdrop. After an overnight sail we reached Traverse City, the first of many North American ‘small town’ destinations on the itinerary, anchoring in the sheltered bay for tender transfers ashore. A drive through agricultural scenery (the heart of US cherry growing) took us to the delightful village of Glen Arbor, full of shops and art galleries, with Cherry Republic selling more cherry-related products than you could dream about. After a coffee break, we continued to the Sleeping Bear Dunes, huge sand dunes on the shore of the lake, with the first of many Indian legends to explain their significance. Incidentally, the term Indians is now non-politically correct. They are the First Nation people. Next day we arrived at Mackinac Island, another tender port, one of the US’s upmarket resort islands, where no motor vehicles are allowed. Horse-drawn carts offer tours or taxi service, but much is within walking distance, including the traditional main street, and Fort Mackinaw, which passed through French and British hands before coming under its current guardians, the US. Re-enactments are a feature here. A short stroll took us to the Butterfly Farm, and by now we were carrying bags of the islands famous fudge, made at and sold from Main St outlets. Sailing from the island along the St Mary’s River brought us to a late evening passage through the Soo Locks and so onto Lake Superior. It is 380 miles from the locks to Duluth at the west end of the lake, so there was a sea day before we arrived at this huge port 2,212 miles from the sea, sailing in under the century-old lift bridge to berth at the quay. Now our education about Great Lakes shipping started in earnest, as we learnt the difference between Lakers (sailing only in fresh water) and Salties (which come and go through the St Lawrence Seaway to the Atlantic), and the importance of the iron ore, limestone, coal and grain trades. A city tour took us to a lookout point, where a stone tower originally gifted by the people of Norway (the regions Scandinavian immigrants have defined the local population) was about to be rededicated by Crown Prince Harald of Norway. Later you can visit The Depot, located in the former railway station, a collection of museums including a huge railroad museum in the basement to educate you about the place of trains in American history. Duluth has a historic port district, and a conference centre, but few shops (unless you find your way to out of town malls). So farewell to the US, as an overnight sail too us to Thunder Bay in Canada, defined by its huge grain elevators where the products of the prairies are loaded on ships that take it near and far (most Italian pasta is made from Canadian drum wheat). A new cruise berth (Canadian pipers greeted us) permits a short stroll into town (short because there is very little to keep you). More likely is an excursion about 60 km from the city to a working amethyst mine, where the octogenarian owner gives you a personal tour and lets you self-mine yourself a pound of gemstone rock. Then it was back to the ship via his factory (and shop), where the rock is carved and polished into highly prized pieces. A day sailing Lake Superior brought us back to the Soo Locks in the late afternoon. This busy system is built and maintained by the US Army Corps of Engineers, and all ships pass through free of charge thanks to the US taxpayers’ munificence. Leaving the locks we turned in the river to berth on the Canadian side at Sault-Ste-Marie (pronounced Soo Saint Marie), a historic town that makes its tourism living from US day-trippers. The most popular excursion is the Algoma Railway train to the spectacular Agawa Canyon, a nine-hour round trip that in the autumn is perfect for viewing the fall colours. A day and night on Lake Huron brought us to Tobermory, which like its namesake on the Isle of Mull, Scotland, is at the end of the road, and a picturesque ferry port. Glass bottomed boats offer trips to view offshore shipwrecks (there are hundreds on the lakes, often well preserved in the fresh water) and the strange rock formations of Flowerpot Island. After half a day here we sailed on overnight to Little Current, an anchor port on the largest island in the lake, Manitoulin. There are six First Nation reservations on the island, so it is the ideal spot for a Pow Wow at one of their cultural centres, where we learnt about their customs and traditions, and see traditional dress, drumming and dancing. Across the road is a Catholic Church where the descendents of those converted by the missionaries still worship in a fashion that recognises their First Nation origins. On the way back there are the Bridal Veil Falls, where as is was September the salmon were spawning in their birth waters before dying. The next morning we sailed the beautiful Georgian Bay (more fall colours) before heading south to arrive in the St Clair River overnight, where the Upper Lakes pilot was changed for the Lower Lakes pilot, continuing the short distance to the Canadian city of Windsor, just across the river from the skyscrapers of Detroit, USA. A visit to the home of Motown, by bridge or tunnel, could involve two hours sitting in a bus waiting to clear US customs and immigration, so a better option was a city tour ending up at the Canadian Club heritage centre, where in addition to tasting we learned the history of the brand, particularly the shenanigans that went on when prohibition was in force a mile away across the river. Al Capone makes a cameo appearance here. Overnight we moved onto Lake Erie and to one of the highlights of the trip, the 27-mile Welland canal with its eight locks, with an average descent (or lift) of 45’. It can take 10-12 hours to make the passage, so how much you see in daylight depends on the traffic situation when the ship takes on the canal pilot at Port Colbourne. We had to circle for 2.5 hours before being let in, so did not arrive on Lake Ontario until midnight. It will not be as warm as Panama, but the experience in the narrow locks is similar if different. So the last night took us across Lake Ontario, and we woke to the Toronto skyline. Dare I say it doesn’t quite match that of Chicago, but the CN tower is a distinctive landmark. As we disembarked we had plenty of memories of very different cruising territory.
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