A CRUISE THROUGH THE GREAT LAKES

- a Clipper/TravLtips Double Header - 1998

by Jodie & Dale Wendel

Cocktails on the veranda of the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, what could be more elegant? We are on a 21-day trip through the Great Lakes on the Nantucket Clipper. We took advantage of a TravLtips two-segment special, boarding the ship in Sault Ste. Marie, MI and leaving it in Quebec City.

The "Clipper Experience" actually started with the charter flight from Chicago to Sault Ste. Marie. Midwest Express provides all first class leather seating and service on their aircraft. It was a promising start!

As with all of our previous Clipper trips, boarding the ship was like greeting an old friend. We were welcomed by the usual friendly, young crew, and the freshly baked cookies, and then shown to our cabin. The adequately sized room contains two single beds, one against the hull under the 14 square foot picture window, the other at right angles to it with a 6 square foot table between them at the corner. There is a desk and mirror on the opposite wall from the bed. Two of the three generously sized closets are provided with drawers, three each. There is ample room under the beds for luggage storage. There is no storage in the typically small but adequate bathroom.

There was sufficient time after boarding for us to get unpacked before supper. This meal, and all meals, featured a wide selection of fresh, well prepared food. Serving sizes are not excessive, however double or half-sized portions are available.

The ship departed at 5 am for the token trip into Lake Superior. We passed through the Soo Locks at day break and cruised up the St. Maryís River during breakfast. Shortly after breakfast we reversed course and again passed through the locks, cameras clicking, on our way to Mackinac Island. The rest of the day was spent in housekeeping details and finally getting ready for the Captainís Welcome Party and Dinner. The Welcome and Fairwell parties are the only occasions where dressing for dinner is appropriate on Clipper ships. The ships are quite casual.

We arrived at Mackinac in late afternoon. The afternoonís entertainment was watching Capt. Bruce Redmer position the Nantucket Clipper between two other craft moored at the dock while fighting a strong cross wind.

No automobiles are allowed on Mackinac Island. (There are, however, emergency vehicles such as a fire truck and ambulance.) All transportation is provided by horse-drawn vehicles or bicycles. Although a squad of 12 people roam the city streets with wheel barrows and shovels cleaning up the droppings, the prevalent aroma in town is of horse manure.

The island has been a resort destination even before the arrival of the white man. It was a summer gathering place for the Indians. Probably the first bed-and-breakfast was a tee-pee operated by the Iroquois for the tourist Hurons who were served roasted Jesuit missionary. The later visitors went for a little more plush accommodations. Stately summer cottages (mansions) grace the area. Many are now bed-and-breakfasts however several are still for private summer use.

High speed ferries from both the US and Canada arrived almost continuously during the daylight hours. Arriving passengers flock to the bicycle rental shops and begin their tour of the island. Those who donít bicycle flock to the many shops in town, especially the many fudge shops. Those who donít shop or bicycle may enjoy a quiet hike away from the crowds in the forests that cover the island. Many of the Clipper passengers took advantage of a horse-drawn tour offered as a option by the ship.

Few people are aware that Mackinac Island National Park was the second national park established after Yellowstone. It was a national park from 1875 until 1895 when the US Army left the island. The park was given to the state and became the first Michigan state park. There are around 3,000 year-round residents however the total summer visitors run around 900,000, thankfully not all at once.

After a full day of island exploration, we were treated by Clipper to a cocktail party on the veranda of the Grand Hotel. We journeyed up the hill from the harbor to the hotel by horse drawn carriage. I felt transported back in time to a more elegant era, sitting in the white rocking chairs looking out over the meticulously landscaped grounds at the lake.

Alas, the age of Victorian elegance has gone and we must depart for the next stop on our voyage, Leland, Michigan. This will be our visit to Lake Michigan.

Strong offshore winds made our transfer to the shore of the Leelanau Peninsula a bit of a challenge, even though we were using a large tender, rather than the shipís zodiacs. Once ashore we found a delightful community of shops and restaurants. After a brief shopping foray, we began our search for Petoskey Stones, fossilized coral from the Devonian sea that covered central North America. When polished, these stones reveal the characteristic pentagonal shape of the ancient animals. In their unpolished form they appear as unassuming stones unless wet. With the offshore wind driving the waves onto the shore, the stones were constantly moistened making their finding quite easy. An optional tour from the ship visited the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park.

After filling a small sack with stones, we retired to a bench in the shade to wait for our bus. While we were enjoying Leland, the ship moved to North Harbor to get away from the wind and tide. A bus carried us across the peninsula. The entry of our large ship into this small boat harbor was quite an event. The docks were crowded with locals as the ship threaded its way into the harbor and tied up to the fuel dock. After all passengers boarded and the ship was ready to depart, First Officer Morgan Buck delivered a dish of fresh, warm Clipper Chippers to the dock crew.

The ship left the harbor and anchored until late at night. Those of us traveling with TravLtips were treated to a wine and cheese reception on the Sun Deck. During the night the ship again passed under the Straits of Mackinaw bridge and returned to Lake Huron.

Lake Huron is crystal clear and beautiful. At one time this lake was essentially dead because of industrial pollution and an overload of untreated sewage. Environmental control allowed the lake to recover. Its present clarity is not good, however. It is the result of the overwhelming presence of the Zebra Mussel. These exotics came into the lake in ship ballast water from the Caspian Sea. With no know predators here, they have proliferated. One mussel filters one quart of water a day. In their massive numbers, they have consumed the bottom of the food chain.

Presque Isle means "almost island." This is a narrow finger that could have been an island if the glaciers had worked a bit harder. It is marked by two lighthouses. The first, built in 1838 proved to be too short and was quickly obscured by the growing trees. The "new" one was built in 1870. The US Coast Guard is abandoning lighthouses as navigational aids and turning them over to whomever will take them. The local township has assumed ownership of the lighthouses. This was our only zodiac landing of the entire trip. The shore landing was at a dock so our feet stayed dry. The ship provided a free shuttle bus to and between both houses. The distances were such that it could be walked also.

During the first phase of our two-cruise journey, we had two lecturers, Fiona Malins presented the historic aspects of the trip while Rachel Perkins covered natural history. They both provided useful insights into the areas we visited.

So far we have seen private boats all over the water. In the summer they become cars, providing access to summer cottages that are located on inaccessible islands or shore lines. It appears that many people use their boats like we use a motor home, traveling about the lakes and spending the night or nights in marinas. Most towns have very nice marinas with hookups. There are usually facilities nearby such as restaurants, grocery stores, etc.

We have also seen many "lakers" and "salties." A laker is a ship uniquely designed for service only on the great lakes. A saltie is an ocean-going vessel.

Georgian Bay has been described by some as the sixth great lake. It is separated from Lake Huron by two peninsula and many islands. The barrier is not quite enough to warrant separate lake-hood, however. The passing glaciers scoured the area, leaving behind 30,000 stone islands. The ship followed a weaving channel through some of these stony stepping stones into the town of Parry Sound.

Almost any island with enough area sported one or more summer cottages. Some were quite elemental however many verged on being luxurious mansions. Electricity and phone service are available to most through underwater cables. Sanitation is provided by septic tanks. If there is insufficient soil for the leach field, sand must be barged in to cover the rock.

Parry Sound was our first clearance of Canadian Customs. (There were to be 3 on the trip.) We were first welcomed to Canada by an extremely friendly inspector who gave us Canadian flag lapel pins. He was just the first of many friendly Canadians we were to meet.

The dock was a short distance from the business center so we walked in and did a bit of shopping after lunch. Late in the afternoon we boarded the MV Chippewa for a closer look at some of the 30,000 islands. Since she has a narrower beam and more shallow draft than the Nantucket Clipper she was able to go more deeply among the islands. This was an optional tour.

As was the case many times throughout the trip, we departed Parry Sound quite late and arrived at our next stop, Midland, Ontario, early the next morning. This manner of travel is like having a movable hotel. You go to bed in one town and magically wake up the next morning in another with no packing, unpacking, or dealing with miserable airlines.

Midland is a fair sized town with a pleasant business district. One notable feature, many of the buildings are decorated with historic murals. These have been created by Fred Lenz. He is a retired outdoor sign painter and is supported by the Mural Fund. His next big project is a mural of the 8 martyred Jesuits that will be on the side of the large grain elevator at the harbor.

As in most of our stops so far, we are frequently accosted by curious people who want to know all about the ship and our trip.

There were three different optional tours offered by the ship. We chose to walk around town and then take the afternoon tour to Wye Marsh. The marsh was quite extraordinary. There were several trumpeter swans, adults and cygnets. Boardwalks allowed access to the marsh areas and paths went through the surrounding woods. Many of the features are explained by signs throughout.

We left Midland at 7 am and didnít arrive at Goderich until the following morning. This was our first "at lake" day of the trip. As befitting a day with no exercise, we ate the day away. After lunch there was a dessert buffet. Those few exercise addicts used either of the two exercise machines on the Sun Deck or walked around the Promenade Deck, 18 laps equaling one mile.

Mark Hamper, the Executive Chef, gave us a bit of information about his staff while demonstrating Garde Manager, the fine art of cutting up food and making it look like something else. There are four chefs. The pastry chef is Ann Jordan who makes all the ice cream, sorbet, bread, rolls, and desserts. The assistant chef is also responsible for "crew chew," or crew meals. The total crew size is 36 resulting in a passenger to crew ratio of 2.7.

And how are the meals organized? Usually a continental breakfast is available in the Observation lounge from 7 to 9 am. A sit-down breakfast is available in the dining room from 7:30 to 8:30, featuring cooked-to-order meals. A similar choice is available at lunch with soup and make-it-yourself sandwiches available in the lounge with cooked entrees available in the dining room. Of course, the same incredibly rich, calorie-laden dessert is available both places. Dinner is served only in the dining room. Seating at all meals is open, i.e. no assigned seats. Freshly baked cookies are served every afternoon at 4:30 and hors díoeuvres are available during cocktail hour.

Goderich is the self-proclaimed "prettiest town in Canada." I havenít seen all the towns in Canada however it is the prettiest Canadian town I have seen on this trip. The dock is near the beach, a good place for a dock. Anyway, it is also near a salt mine! The entrance to the mine is on the shore and goes 1,500 feet deep and extends miles out under the lake. Its primary product is rock salt.

After breakfast we strolled on the boardwalk that runs along the beach, all the way to the end, about 2 miles. When we reached the end of the walk, we climbed the stairs up to the top of the bluff and walked back toward the ship through a residential area. The newer homes are quite nice. There are also some elegant older homes spotted about, most closer to the harbor on the edge of the bluff.

We found a lighthouse overlooking the harbor and then found a trail back down the cliff to the beach. After a spot of iced tea on board we set out to look at the things on the other side of the harbor. We walked along a portion of trail through a hillside covered with flowers.

The attraction on the other side was an old laker. Upon closer examination it was obviously out of service but not available for touring or anything else. There were also some unique white fishing boats moored in front of the laker. They are squat and wide. The Pilot, Ron Ingrahm, said they are a special design used by gill net fishermen on the rough lakes. There is a large port on the starboard side of the bow and a corresponding large port closer to the stern. I speculate that the net is picked up at the bow and passed through the ship, allowing the fish to be removed as it passes through the ship.

After lunch we rode into town on the complementary shuttle bus and walked around the square, which is actually an octagon. Although it was Sunday, a few stores were open. We strolled back to the ship without having bought anything.

The Town Crier and a piper welcomed us to Windsor, site of a garish new casino and the Hiram Walker Distillery. Two little girls passed out fresh roses to the passengers as they departed the ship for an optional trip to The Ford Museum and Greenfield Village in nearby Dearborn, MI. When we returned to our cabin we found a small box of Walker chocolates and a Canadian flag for each of us.

We wandered up and down the garden along the river bank and walked to the business district. This was Sunday so not much was open.

Toledo was the final stop for most of the passengers, however 18 TravLtips passengers had booked both cruises. So what was Clipper to do with us while unloading the old and loading the new? They set up a tour of the museum and suggested a trip to the zoo as an alternative. Our plans were somewhat different. We needed to do laundry. There is no passenger laundry on board and we hadnít taken advantage of the rather expensive service provided at one of the stops.

Corrie Smith, the Cruise Director, had asked the shipís agent if there was a Laundromat nearby. He said there was and drove us there. We found a lovely Laundromat (if a Laundromat can be called lovely) and quickly did our wash. We even hit half-price Tuesday! We were only a few blocks from the dock so we walked back and stashed our nicely cleaned clothes. Then we set off in a light rain to explore the town on the other side of the river and find a place for lunch.

What we found was a remarkable childrenís science museum very much stressing hands-on. The name of the place is COSI which used to be an acronym for something but now is just the name. We had lunch and spent a delightful afternoon. I was having trouble getting one of the machines to work properly. A 10-year-old boy came over and asked me if I needed help. When I said I did he quickly demonstrated how to make it work, a humbling experience for a retired engineer.

Hotel Manager Steve Tracy and his staff had planned a cocktail party for the returning passengers on the Sun Deck while the new passengers were being briefed. It was rained out.

I need to comment on Steveís collection of food-oriented ties. He seems to have an endless selection, each appropriate to the meal or time of day.

We not only changed passengers at this stop, we also changed the cruise director, naturalist, and historian. In a change of roles, I was able to greet the new cruise director, Milee Mott, and welcome her to the ship.

Back to Windsor, but this time the stores were open. The usual optional tour to the museum and garden were offered. We opted to walk to the Hiram Walker Distillery for a tour instead.

Canadian Club is made from rye and corn. Both are ground and turned into mash by cooking, the corn at 250ļ and the rye at 150ļ. The reason for the higher temperature for the corn is to destroy all corn flavor. "We arenít making bourbon." The corn is used for its alcohol-making sugar content. Each mash is fermented separately using two special yeasts. After fermentation they are distilled and pumped to the bonded storage area where the Canadian Government collects 83% tax. Then the alcohols are blended and placed in oak barrels whose interiors have been charred. The barrels go to a storage facility for 6 to 20 years. During the time in the barrels the liquid acquires its amber color from the char. Approximately 3% of the alcohol is lost each year to evaporation. (The guide said there are very happy angels over the aging facility.)

On our previous visit we had looked, uncessufully, for a WWII Lancaster bomber in a rose garden, a memorial to Canadians lost in that war. Since we were still searching for the elusive Lancaster bomber we headed toward the park where it is alleged to be. The lady at the distillery visitor center suggested that we walk along Ottawa Street since there are many interesting shops there. There are also many ethnic areas. We saw Italian, Croatian, Indian, Polish, and Hungarian. Prior to reaching Ottawa street we encountered the Market Place, kind of an indoor Farmersí Market. In addition to the usual fruit and vegetable stands there were many meat markets selling everything from turkey feet and duck necks to stuffed pork chops to all kinds of sausages.

Hunger and the incessant rain drove us into Tony Macaroniís Restaurant for a delicious lunch. Then, still in the rain, we set out to find the bomber, which we did. We hiked a bit farther to a handicraft store Jodie had read about, then back to the ship for our second Captainís welcome gala. We walked 12 miles. On to Put-In-Bay.

The name of the island, "Put-In Bay" is actually pronounced "Putin" as one word. This is near where the decisive battle for control of Lake Erie in the War of 1812 was fought, where Perry dispatched his famous message, "We have met the enemy and they are ours." There is a very large column dedicated to the victory and to the peace existing between the US and Canada.

The chief ranger from the monument, Jerry Altoff, came aboard and gave an excellent presentation on the war and especially on the Battle for Lake Erie.

In spite of the historic significance, this place is now a dense tourist trap. It is like Mackinac Island without the charm of horse manure. Pleasure boats are rafted out from the docks three to four deep. There are several hundred golf carts for rent to tourists. In addition to the pleasure boats, ferries also bring visitors. Put-In-Bay also boasts the worlds longest bar and two wineries. We visited Heinemanís winery. This is the only winery I have visited where they described their production in gallons rather than cases. The winery also features a very large crystal-lined cave, termed the Worldís Largest Geode. It is quite spectacular. A total of 15 people were in the cave on our visit.

After an overly-long stay we left for Toronto.

During our day "at lake," we had a very good lecture from the naturalist on this segment, Tom Stanley, about the exotics that have been introduced into the lakes. Then the Chief Engineer, Jim Whitmer, told us about the ship. The final lecture was by the historian, Bill Fowler, tracing the development of Great Lakes ships.

We went over the Niagara Falls in the Nantucket Clipper today! Actually that isnít quite true. We went through the Welland Canal which has the same 330 foot drop from the Niagara Escarpment to Lake Ontario but through a nicely controlled set of 8 locks. We approached the canal entrance around 8am but then tied up to wait for Canadian Immigration clearance and the arrival of the busses for the optional tour. Eventually we received telephonic clearance and the busses carried off the falls tour group.

After a couple of hours we went through the first lock with a drop of at least one foot. Its purpose is to adjust the level of the canal to the variable level of Lake Erie. Then we motored through the remains of the Welland River and tied up again at the head of lock 7 to await the return of the tour buses. Prior to lunch the few passengers on board enjoyed complementary Bloody Marys or Screwdrivers. Lunch was served only in the longue.

After the tours returned we dropped down the remaining locks, often with panoramic views of the lower country side. We exited the last lock during dinner and headed off to Toronto.

This was also the afternoon when we had our second TravLtips wine and cheese party!

We awakened to a placid view of a broad river and an airport from our starboard window. When we went up to breakfast the view to the port side was quite different. The soaring skyline of Toronto greeted us. But soaring above all was the CN Tower, at 1815 feet, the Worldís Tallest building. After breakfast we went up to the towerís observation level which provided outstanding vistas, in spite of the haze. Then we went down one level and walked on the glass floor. After enjoying others trying to get up enough nerve to walk out onto the glass, it was our turn. This is actually an act of faith in the engineers who designed the floor. Needless to say, we didnít fall through and should have some spectacular photos taken between our feet looking over 1,000 feet down at the base of the tower.

Several passengers took advantage of the baseball game being played at the nearby Skydome, the home of the Toronto Blue Jays. After being treated to the spectacular opening of the retractable dome, they enjoyed watching the Blue Jays defeat the Oakland Aís 4-3.

We spent the remainder of the day wandering the Toronto Underground. Many of the large Canadian cities have created underground cities by connecting the shopping malls under office towers with tunnels. The tunnels themselves are lined with shops so it is hard to tell when you go from one building to another. There are a total of 5 miles of shops in the Toronto Underground.

At 6pm we enjoyed the returning passengersí cocktail party on the Sun Deck, hosted by Steve Tracy and his able assistant, Craig (Buck) Murray. This was the rain-delayed party from Toledo. The delay was fortuitous since we had a beautiful view of sunset and the Toronto skyline as the ship departed - until an arriving thunder storm cut the party short.

After cruising until noon, we reached Kingston. Had another lecture from Bill about the history of the St. Lawrence Seaway. Its construction was more to Canadaís benefit than the US since the Erie canal provided access to Lake Erie. Also the US has the Mississippi to serve the Midwest. Traffic through the Seaway is 75% Canadian.

Kingston is a lovely old town with many limestone residences, government buildings, and businesses. We didnít take the optional overview bus tour but elected to walk around on our own. Our first stop was the Steam Museum. It is the former city water pumping plant. There are two large steam engines that drew water from the lake and pumped it to a storage tank on a hill. These engines, plus several others are capable of running, and the museum has a modern boiler. Lack of funds prevents their operation. There is also a very large model train layout donated to the museum by its builder. He died the day after it was set up at the museum.

We then went to visit one of the three Martello Towers that were built to protect the town from US invasion. These were a common English defensive structure and are equipped with one or more cannon on the upper deck that can be swung to point in any direction. The story below contains a number of carronades. The tower we visited has been magnificently restored.

Then we went to the Maritime Museum and the Alexander Henry, a retired Canadian Coast Guard Cutter. It is also a bed-and-breakfast. You may stay in the captainís cabin for only $65/night. We left Kingston with the hope of seeing some of the 10,000 islands however darkness intervened.

We went through the first three St. Lawrence Seaway locks during the night and continued working through sets of locks all day. Arrival in Montreal was originally scheduled for midnight. However, in early afternoon we could see the skyline through the haze. We still had the three final locks of the seaway plus miles of canal which bypasses the La Chine rapids. Docking finally occurred at 6:30.

I felt the St. Lawrence Seaway was a bit of a disappointment. The lock complexes are just as old and beat-up as those of the Welland Canal. I finally decided that my disappointment was of my own making. I could remember it being built in my lifetime so I expected it to be modern. It was built in 1956 and should look old and well used. I certainly do.

The ship docked near the center of old Montreal. We took an optional city overview tour which zig-zagged up through the business district and then went up to Mt. Royal, for which the city is named. I havenít decided if there are more churches or restaurants here.

As in Toronto, the shopping centers under the buildings are linked creating an underground city. There is a total of 18 miles available, all connected to the Metro. This is all because of the winter weather which features 100 inches of snow. Snow that falls in November will not melt until May. We found the underground air conditioned mall nice for the warm weather also.

Sunrise and the Nantucket Clipper reached Quebec City at about the same time. Once again we were conveniently located near the historic old town. The Chateau Frontenac looms over the area. It is so massive that it looks like it could withstand the next glacier.

Again we skipped the optional tours and set out to explore the old town. The first order of business, of course, was to go see the Chateau and the Citadel. The fort is a much improved version of the partially completed one that occupied the height when the English defeated the French in the battle on the Plains of Abraham in 1759. It is a steep walk through winding cobblestone streets to reach the Chateau. A funicular is also available. From there it is 310 steps up to the fort, or more winding, cobblestone streets.

Our final full day on board was a cruise into the Gulf of the St. Lawrence and Saguenay Fjord. We saw several Minke whales on the trip. Some passengers also saw some Beluga whales. Besides enjoying the scenery, we had a Champagne brunch, galley tours, and the final excess, the Captainís Farewell Cocktail Party and Dinner.

After the Clipper pampering it was a harsh return to reality to experience the rude indifference and sardine like packing of the commercial airline.

These two cruises comprised our fifth and sixth trips with Clipper. The young crew and staff are invariable friendly and cheerful. They are Clipperís strongest asset. The meals are always well prepared from quality ingredients, and well-sized. The cost of cocktails and wine is reasonable. In addition, the wine selection is excellent. It was a great trip!