Exploring America

DSC_0060I’ve traveled, mostly by cruise ships, over much of the world and I thought maybe this year was a good year to stick around home and see some of North America.  Originally I had thought this summer would have been a good time to redo the Black Sea, the Bosphorus and Istanbul, one of my favorite cities. But this turned out not to be the best time to visit Turkey or the Black Sea.

Many years ago we had taken a river cruise on the lower Mississippi out of New Orleans and loved it.

When I was in seminary in Holland, Michigan I had an apartment in a home on the shores of Lake Macatawa and I would see the huge Great Lakes bulk carriers sail by the dock and I would think, “Wouldn’t it be fun to cruise the Great Lakes.  Why don’t they have cruises on the Lakes?”

We got to visit the SS KEEWATIN, one of the last passenger steamships on the Great Lakes
We got to visit the SS KEEWATIN, one of the last passenger steamships on the Great Lakes

There was a time before the railroads when cruising the Great Lakes was the way to the Midwest.  Most of the immigrants who came from Europe to burgeoning cities like Detroit and Chicago came by the Lake steamers.  Thankfully in recent years people have discovered the joys of river cruising not just in Europe, where it is booming, but also in the US.  American Cruise Lines has eight ships and offers cruises of American rivers and coastal areas.   Their sister company, Pearl Seas Cruises, is a relatively new entry that offers coastal cruises and starting later this year will also offer cruises to Cuba.

So PEARL MIST captured my attention and I jumped on the opportunity to work a cruise on the Great Lakes & Georgian Bay.

DSC_0442PEARL MIST is my kind of ship.  Only 100 or so staterooms, MUCH larger than on most ships and most with balconies.  Of all the ships I’ve been on over many years this is the first ship where I wasn’t forced into a daily intimate relationship with my shower curtain, and if I dropped the soap I didn’t have to step out of the shower or risk being impaled by the shower handle if I stooped over to pick up the soap.  Quick review: fantastic service by room steward and dining room staff.  Interesting, well for the US & Canada, ports with shore excursions that were frequently complimentary or offered at about half what you’d pay on most cruise lines.  Open seating dining and I chose to eat with a different group of folks every meal.  The food was excellent.  I guess cooking for 200 people enables you to create better food than cooking for 2,000 or more.

What PEARL MIST didn’t have: art auctions, gift shops, people hawking water at $3 a bottle … bottled water, along with beer, wine, and mixed drinks at the daily free cocktail party are included … no one hawking Botox treatments, teeth whitening, Jackie Kennedy jewelry, no wannabe Vegas shows, no pool games … well, no pool … no long lines.  Oh yes, no wine at $9 a half glass or drinks with paper umbrellas for $12.

Getting on board with only 200 is a breeze and getting on and off the ship is quick and easy.  And halfway through the cruise the crew knows your name and preferences.

A fun feature … in both lounges there is a counter with a dynamite coffee machine that will make whatever you want, espresso, cappuccino, tea, hot chocolate, double shot … you name it … and it was good coffee.  There are also piles of sodas … just help yourself, no $3 for a can of Coke plus 15% tip … piles of bottle water and stacks of bags of chips, pretzels, food bars, snacks.  Help yourself!  And … lest your starve … there are breakfast pastries, fresh-baked cookies, and afternoon cakes and sandwiches, followed by a daily free cocktail hour with hors d’oeuvres.

What’s to do besides eat?  These tend to be port intensive cruises.  Almost a port every day.  In eleven days we had one “sea” day, or more accurately lake day, and I only managed to get time for three lectures.  The afternoon cocktail party goes on in both lounges and is a big deal.  These people like to visit and share. Most of the guests were retired or nearing retirement, rather well off, well-educated and well-traveled.  They were interesting folks!  One guy had been in the US Air Force, the White House wing, and had flown the Reagans around on Air Force One.  Two had captained US Navy ships.  One owned most of the funeral homes in the southeastern states.  Another gal was a mucky muck in the world of US swimming and since the Olympics were on was in her glory at the US victories.  She also had written two books on women US Navy pilots. A retired shrimper, surgeons and doctors … interesting folks.  Intelligent people and guess what … they were all smart enough to leave their US political disagreements on the dock!

OK, no Vegas wannabe shows, or kids graduated from Disney World hoping for Broadway careers.  With full days in port folks tended to turn in early.  No late night disco here.  Evening entertainment was usually an onboard duo, supplemented by local talent onboard for the night.  There were a few fun games of bingo and trivia.  As requested I came on board with six lectures, and DSC_0167bridge commentary about the Welland Canal and Mackinac Bridge as well as Mackinac Island, but only had time for three talks.  I think this group would have appreciated more lecture time and more information about the places we were visiting.

DSC_0169Highlights were cruising the St Lawrence Seaway and the Welland Canal, which unfortunately we transited the first night out so folks really didn’t have a grasp on the importance of the eight Welland Locks that get you around Niagara Falls.  Visiting the Canadian side of the Falls and cruising into Horseshoe Falls was definitely a highlight, as, surprisingly for me DSC_0360was the visit to the restored Jesuit mission complex of Sainte-Marie among the Hurons.

We had to endure the hassle of crossing the border from Windsor, Canada to Detroit to visit the Henry Ford Museum and Deerfield Village, which were definitely a highlight. Deerfield Village was as I remembered it, but the Henry Ford Museum which I had remembered as a hodgepodge collection of interesting “stuff” is now a marvelously curated and logical display of US history.

Detroit Deerfield Village 13 Detroit Deerfield Village JFK

Although I lived in Michigan and went to school there, I had never been to Mackinac Island, so for me it was definitely a highlight of the cruise.  I skipped the famous fudge, but I thoroughly enjoyed riding around the island and sitting on the porch of the Grand Hotel.

Mackinac Island 31 Mackinac Island 68

Call me strange, but if I want a climbing wall I’ll go shop at REI.  If I want bumper cars or roller coasters I’ll go to Six Flags.  If I want water slides I’ll go to a water park.  If I want a Broadway show I’ll go to New York.  I cruise for the ports and the adventure of exploring and making new and interesting friends.  And you can find that here at home without flying half way around the world.