The Great Lakes were formed ten thousand years ago by retreating glaciers. The sweet water seas of the Great Lakes are one of the newest, yet also one of the oldest cruise destinations in the world. Seven night cruises started here over a century ago with palatial ships such as the "North Land ” and "North West”, and today cruisers are only now rediscovering the beauty and excitement of the region.

The Sundeck is the pool deck.

Sailing on the Great Lakes, passengers enjoy a new port of call every day, visiting small picturesque towns, turn-of-the-(20th)century resorts, or a historic city with magnificent galleries and architecture. Some of the things that can be enjoyed along the route include: world class theatre, salmon fishing, First People dancing and drumming, or hiking through woodland glades.

The largest cruise ship on the Lakes system may come to you as a surprise, because it is a German company called Hapag-Lloyd, well-known for one of the most luxurious cruise liners, the Europa, rated the best in the world for the last five years.  Hapag-Lloyd is a subsidiary of the world's largest tourism group — TUI. On the Great Lakes the line sets sail with a wonderful Three Star ship called the C. Columbus, which has been plying these waters for over five years.

Recently the M/S Columbus won awards for World's Best Ship in the Great Lakes from Berlitz Publishing's Ocean Cruise and Cruise Ships 2005, by Douglas Ward; it also won an award for Best Cruise Ship from Luthansa City Center.

Kat 8 with 160 square feet of space.

I race down the old Navy Pier in Chicago, dodging the tourists who are nonchalantly strolling the attractions, restaurants, and vendors, and at the end of the pier is my ship. As I board C. Columbus I am immediately given a Willkommen au Bord like a member of the family.  The German crew is crisp in speech, manner, and demeanor, but the smiling faces are beguiling witnesses to a crew of fun people. I meet the ship's Director of Hotel Operations, Stefan Doktor, while checking in. He assures me that my starboard bow cabin is one of the nicest outside staterooms. with a large oval window for a porthole. My bags are silently whisked off.

Kat 15 - a Suite with square portholes.

All-in-all there are 134 outside cabins on the ship, all at about 162 square feet, but they must have had a German feng shui expert design the layout because even though my cabin is compact, it is roomy and easy to walk around in. There are also eight suites onboard, two of which have a balcony. There are also 63 inside cabins at 140 square feet that are often sharply discounted. My cabin (kat in German) has an adequate bathroom with an expansive shower, complete with botanical shampoos and a hairdryer. Other ensuite amenities include mini bar, safe, telephone (that ialso serves as the ship intercom for relaying the day's events), color TV, and generous wardrobe space.  The two twin beds make a wonderful king bed when squeezed together. All inside cabins has separate beds.  My Philippina housekeeper keeps me in stock with fresh towels and nightly turn down chocolates.

Main Salon dining choices
are from around the world.

That evening, while dining in the Main Salon, C. Columbus barks a honk and we are off across Lake Michigan to Traverse City. There is only one sitting at the huge restaurant and I immediately make new friends with Sonnig, which in German means sunny.  The blond, lithe German lass is a delightful rainbow of sunny smiles, and I later learn her name is but a nickname; everyone on board loves her fresh, energetic style. The food is fantastic in the restaurant or Main Salon, and the wine cellar is superb. The Maitre d’ continuously circles the two sides of the restaurant making sure all guests are well received and satiated. He arrives at my table, clicks his heels, bows, and smiles. All crew members speak excellent English. Any special diets require a three week advance notice before sailing. Dining is casual — only the Captain’s Welcome and Farewell Dinners call for something more formal — a cocktail dress for the ladies and jacket and tie for the gentlemen.

C. Columbus serves boutique wines
with gourmet European fare.

C. Columbus also has the Showtime/Lounge Bar for nightly entertainment by the Allegro Band, and the Palmgarten Bar off the Sonnendeck (Sun Deck) on the sixth deck is kept lively during the day, as guests play games, listen to music, and are served drinks and casual dining. The Galleria is a cozy seating area.

The ship also has a boutique, wine bar, library with mostly German tomes and magazines, card room, gym, sauna (make your reservations in advance, with men in the morning and ladies in the afternoon), and massage therapist. The hairdresser salon is kept quite busy. The ship also has a photo shop on Deck 5 (Purchase photos of yourself on the cruise from the ship’s photographer; the ordered photos are delivered to your cabin and charged to the account.). The small, heated Sonnendeck pool is rarely used.

The ship has its own hospital with a doctor onboard, and an email centre that requires assistance from a crew member. Emails with attachments are charged 30 Euro per kilobyte; emails without attachments are free of charge. The popular treadmills rack up the miles in the small corner gym on the Sonnendeck, and just off the Palmgarten Lounge, the most popular spot on the entire voyage.  The Palmgarten is the spot for late morning buffets in case you slept in and missed the Main Salon's hearty buffets; the Main Salon serves full lunch and dinner menus on a strict schedule.  Weather permitting; I am able to take lunch on the Sonnendeck, which always has plenty of fresh blue beach towels. One afternoon is spent catching the warm September rays. The boutique on Deck 5 sells suntan lotion, sundries, jewelry, gifts, and photo film.  Later, take a scheduled bridge visit.

The C. Columbus anchors
at Traverse City, Michigan.

Every day there is a cocktail of the day. Tonight’s special cocktail is “Welcome To C. Columbus”, and I have no clue what is in the drink.

The next morning we dock in Traverse City, but not actually right at the dock, which is undergoing reconstruction, so we are ferried in by one of the two ship tenders. But before we ship out, some guests partake in “Exercise with Barbara.” I take in the introductory lecture about the Great Lakes with Sylvia Stevens. During the night there was a time change, so the crew reminds the guests on the Sleeping Bear Dunes Park tour or the Old Missions Peninsula tour to reset their watches to make it back to the tour bus on time.

That afternoon we set sail for Mackinac Island, which requires another night sail. That evening in the Lounge Bar we are introduced to the senior staff by Captain Raif Zander; the two staff members most notable to me are Cruise Director, Uta Eisner, and Maitre d’ Hotel, Stefan Doktor. English is the second language onboard, so all introductions are first in German, and then reiterated for the few Americans onboard. A word to the wise for those looking for glitzy glamour on a cruise vacation: the European cruising style is more for rest and relaxation, conversing over tea and light afternoon snacks, or playing games.  This is a great people cruise.  I make friends fast with many guests, even though they don’t speak English, nor do I speak German.

Slipped into my cabin every morning is the Teamtalk Sat News that includes a quick summary of world news, but more importantly, the news and events aboard the ship or ashore for the next 24 hours, including the night’s evening activities.  The lively Allegro Band sees people dancing nightly; one night there is a Vegas-style revue with dancers and Latin rhythms and jazz.

Fort Michilimackinac from Marquette Park.

The gardens are well tended
at the Fort's Officer Quarters.

The next morning we are harbored at Mackinac Island; again the speedy and efficient tenders offer continuous service from the boat to the island. Everyone takes photos of the historical homes below the brow of the unique Fort Michilimackinac.  The fort was the site of the first shot of the War of 1812, I am told, when I meet up with the State of Michigan Park Director of Public Relations.  While sitting in his office I get a great view of the C. Columbus floating in Lake Michigan like a plastic duck in a gallery shoot. The time ashore is sufficient to take a walking tour of the grounds of the interesting fort, stop for ice cream, stroll back down to the main street and meet up with some of the hoteliers of this swank summer resort town.  Then it is a clip clop tour by carriage around the island. Once back in the tourist area, more ice cream and bags of chocolates seem to be the most popular items for shopping.

That afternoon aboard the C. Columbus the Cocktail of the Day is Kir Royal, with the evening Cocktail of the Day a Yellow Bird. I wish the ship would publish a tip sheet on the drinks, because they are as delicious as their descriptive nomenclature. The receptionist requires all passengers to deposit our passports to him for the custom officers in Sault St. Marie, Canada.  But first it is more dancing in the lounge after another wonderful dining experience in the Main Salon, lit up again by the beautiful Teutonic smile of Sonnig.

The ship's Library.

The ship's Driving Range.

I am zapping through the three channels of TV in by cabin when I realize that the morning light has the ship firmly roped at the Sault St. Marie dock.  My first visage is a tall pine tree.  I check the forward mounted camera on the mast via the TV and get a shot of the Saint Mary River. I try to remember where we are so I check the Sat sheet . . . and then after the hearty breakfast it is off to discover the Bushplane Museum, just a short walk down the quay on Bay Street. I notice that the ship’s Blauer Peter has been pulled from the mast, so we must be here for a while, because the blue and white signal flag is only flown while sailing.

After clearing Canadian customs onboard ship, many guests either take the Bushplane Museum tour, or the Agawa Canyon Train Ride or the Kanu Tour on the Garden River or a walking tour of St. Mary Island. Also worth seeing in the “Soo” is the Ermatinger Old Stone House at 831 Queen Street, built in 1814 for the well known fur trader, Charles Oakes Ermatinge. Aulte Ste Marie Museum is located at 609 Queen Street for a bite of regional history. The Forestry Canada Great Lakes Forest Center is at 1219 Queen Street. This is the largest forestry research center in Canada with guided tours, slide shows, and a greenhouse and laboratories. The MS Norgoma Museum Ship was just off C. Columbus’ starboard at Foster Drive. The Norgoma was the last passenger ship that was built for voyages on the Great Lakes. It sailed between Owen Sound and Sault Ste. Marie between 1950 and 1963 and was later used as a car ferry to Manitoulin Island until 1974.

Tour the Soo Locks
on Chief Shingwauk.

On both sides of the St. Mary River lie the twin towns of Sault Ste. Marie. On the U.S. side is the state of Michigan, with 15,000 inhabitants, and on the Canadian side is its twin namesake with 83,000 inhabitants. It is also the administrative center for the district of Algoma, in southern Ontario. The St. Mary River is the border between Canada and the USA, and it is also the connection between Lake Superior and Lake Huron via the Soo Locks, which I have time to tour with Lock Tours Canada; their office is conveniently located just off the bow sprit of the C. Columbus.

The harbor is part of the St. Lawrence Seaway; the large locks were completed on the Canadian side in 1895, enabling ships to get from Lake Huron to Lake Superior.  The newer locks are on the American side. The locks in the canals are ice free so 80 ships a day pass through them year around. It takes forever, it seems, for the locks to close, but when they do a rapid gurgle fills them and we are suddenly on Lake Superior. The locks tour route takes us around both sets of locks, past an iron ore refinery, and past one of the largest swinging cranes still in service in the world. The cruise brings us back to the St. Mary River and a quick tour along the shores of the two Soos.

Lock Tours Canada
Roberta Bonar Park Dock
Foster Drive
PO Box 23002
Station Mall
Sault Ste. Marie ,
P61 6W6
Fax 705/253-3303


The Soo locks are some of the busiest lock canal systems in the world, vying with the Panama Canal for most used. The American locks and Canadian Canal bypass the St. Mary River Rapids, and we are raised 21 feet from Lake Huron to Lake Superior, or vice versa.

Lock Tours Canada’s boat, the Chief Shingwauk (The Chief to the deckhands), has many amenities, including a climate controlled viewing lounge. There is a canopied upper deck with upholstered seating and clean restrooms. The live commentary by the licensed crew adds much to the historical accounts of the tour. The boat has several departures daily and an evening buffet dinner cruise (about $80.00CND). Prices are about $23.50 Canadian for the three hour day tours without dining, but there is a snack shack onboard for drinks and nibbles.

The Indians used this area as a trading post for hundreds of years, because of its excellent location. The first Europeans came here at the start of the 17th century. French Voyageurs and fur hunters traded with the Indians of the region and the first missionary stations were set up by French Jesuits. This is where the origin of the word Saint in the name of the towns came from. In 1671, the region was taken over by the French.

Since the construction of a canal in 1798 that reduced the strong currents here, many French and English settled on the St. Mary River. Until 1842, the settlement here was an important fur trading post. Sault Ste. Marie was incorporated as a city in 1887 and as a result of the later construction of a railway line built by Canadian Pacific Railway, the town increased in importance. Large businesses and industrial concerns settled here and many jobs were created.

C. Columbus specs:

Year of completion: 1997
tonnage: GRZ 15,000
Shipyard: MTW Wismar/Germany
Length: 472 feet
Breadth: 70.5 feet
Draw: 16 feet
Maximum speed: 18.5 knots
Engine output: 10,580 KW
6 passenger decks On board
Flag: Bahamas
Two elevators onboard.

That evening the Cocktail of the Day is a Planter’s Punch, and most guests have one in hand as we watch a large ore freighter move slowly through the opposite lock.  C. Columbus passes through a nearby lock from Lake Huron to Lake Superior for a long night voyage to Thunder Bay on Superior’s western shore.  Later that evening we enjoy a French Canadian dinner in the Main Salon, complete with champagne! Later we gather for dance music by the Allegro Band before a late night snack of Frankfurter Sausages with potato salad. I am sad to be departing the ship at Thunder Bay, but the C. Columbus continues with the present entourage to the Detroit area and the end of its summer season sailing and the start of an around-the-world sailing. But then it will be back on the Great Lakes for another great sunny summer — rather Sonnig summer — of sailing.

The Hapag-Lloyd line offers several cruise ships, as well as freighter and container cargo service worldwide. Visit their website in German, or in English.

By Kriss Hammond, Editor, Jetsetters Magazine.