It is a common sight in the Caribbean and the Mediterranean: A cruise ship pulls into a port and passengers stream out to spend a few hours onshore shopping, dining and sightseeing. Thanks to their weather and culture, these regions are considered the best — if not only — options for casual cruisers. However, last summer, this scene took place far from the Gulf of Mexico and southern Europe.

Cleveland, Milwaukee and Detroit are not known as cruise ports, though they do receive a lot of freighter traffic. However, if 2014 is any indication, the growing Great Lakes cruise industry may change the ratio between cargo ships and leisure vessels in these Midwestern ports.

With major lines dominating traditional cruise destinations, smaller players are left to find and exploit the industry's underserved niches. The Great Lakes region is arguably the most promising of these little-sailed places. American cruisers can reach the embarking points more easily and cheaply compared with international cruise ports. Despite the convenience, many Great Lakes passengers are not from the U.S. The high European demand for multi-day Great Lakes journeys is a major reason for growth in recent years.

Great Lakes cities are going out of their way to welcome these cruise ships. Places like Cleveland, Milwaukee and Buffalo, New York, have been busy reinventing themselves in post-manufacturing America. They can showcase their history and revitalized waterfront areas to the captive audience that cruising brings. More popular tourist cities like Montreal and Chicago also find themselves on Great Lakes cruising itineraries.

Mackinac Island

Michigan’s car-free Mackinac Island is a popular destination in the region. (Photo: John McCormick/Shutterstock)

Smaller places such as Michigan's car-free Mackinac Island and the remote Apostle Islands are on many cruisers' destination wish lists. Ferries that serve these islands carry a large percentage of the Lakes' leisure passenger traffic. Being able to visit both big city waterfronts and remote nature destinations is one of the reasons Great Lakes cruises are so alluring.

One of the biggest ships on the lakes during the 2014 season was the Hamburg. Carrying mainly German tourists, this 400 passenger boat traveled to places like Milwaukee and Chicago. The ship's itinerary had an added element of history and culture, showcasing places and industries (such as brewing in Milwaukee) built by German immigrants.

The Ontario-based Great Lakes Cruising Coalition has been promoting freshwater cruises for two decades, and its effort seems to be paying off. Four lines offered cruises on the lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway this past season. Though the boats are smaller than the thousand-berth behemoths that cruise the Caribbean, they have the same layout and amenities, including restaurants, full cabins and multiple decks. They make several stops during each journey. The busiest ship, the Connecticut-based 108 suite Pearl Mist, made six round-trip journeys between Toronto and Chicago this year. The Pearl's owner, Great Lakes Cruise Co., has three other vessels that sail the lakes and the waterways of the northeastern U.S. and eastern Canada. 

Pearl Mist cruise ship

The Pearl Mist took a number of trips on the Great Lakes this summer. (Photo: Dennis Jarvis/flickr)

Another company, Blount Small Ship Adventures, has a fleet of 100 passenger vessels designed to sail shallower waters, so they can reach ports larger ships cannot. In addition to journeys on lakes Erie, Huron and their peers, Blount offers cruises on the Erie Canal. Interestingly, this company used to offer many Caribbean trips, but it has since switched focus to the Northeast and the Great Lakes.

Despite being outside the mainstream market, Great Lakes cruises are not cheap. In general, multi-day trips have price tags that top $2,000, and plenty of weeklong or two-week options run more than $5,000.

This is bad news for people looking for an inexpensive alternative, but freshwater companies with smaller vessels can't afford to offer those $200 and $300 three-day deals found in the Caribbean. At the same time, smaller ships mean a more personalized experience and less crowded excursions at ports of call.

Prices might start to come down a bit as the industry continues to grow. In the meantime, plenty of day and half-day cruises tour the lakes, including ferries to Mackinac and waterfront cruises in Chicago, Milwaukee, Toronto, Montreal and Cleveland. 

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