First in a Series
Having been born in Michigan, reared in Indiana, and then returned to Michigan to attend college before moving to the West and East Coasts, I often wince a bit when I hear friends in the latter refer to the Midwestern U.S. as “flyover country.”
I’ve even been guilty of a bit of snobbery myself when I’ve noted that most of our friends in California and New York originally came from the Midwest — “but had the good sense to get out.”
I’m now officially retracting that statement, which was based on my childhood memories of bitterly cold winters, hot, humid summers, and what I perceived as a lack of cutting-edge cuisine and culture.
After spending last week cruising Lake Michigan with Blount Small Ship Adventures in the company of about 70 other passengers, I rekindled a long-forgotten love affair with waters that played a big role in my youth, and I gained a new appreciation for the Midwest as well.
Magical Lake Michigan
The week-long cruise was titled “Magical Lake Michigan,” and the lake truly lived up to the name.
Lake Michigan — the second largest of the five Great Lakes that stretch 750 miles from upstate New York to Wisconsin and Minnesota, and together make up one-fifth of the world’s supply of freshwater — is the only Great Lake located entirely within the United States. (The four others — lakes Superior, Huron, Ontario and Erie — all share borders with Canada.)
About 300 miles long and 120 miles wide, Lake Michigan boasts more than 1,600 miles of shoreline. Averaging about 280 feet in depth, it falls to about 925 feet at its deepest point.
At its southwestern tip, the third-largest city in America — Chicago — is lined with miles of sandy beaches that draw thousands of sunbathers during the summer. At its northern tip, the five-mile-long Mackinac Bridge spans the straits connecting Michigan’s sparsely populated Upper Peninsula with the lower part of the state and forms the border between lakes Michigan and Huron.
Between the two extremes lie dozens of resort towns lining both sides of the lake — the eastern shore in Michigan and the western shore in Wisconsin and Illinois — including the town of Ludington, Michigan, where my grandmother lived and I spent parts of many summers as a boy, going to the beach, playing tennis and shuffleboard, riding bikes, and eating “Pig’s Dinners” — giant banana splits — at the wonderfully aromatic Park Dairy.
The lake also features the sizable and very livable city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, as well as a number of islands (both inhabited and uninhabited), impressive sand dunes, and some 1,180 cubic miles of water, sometimes stretching as far as the eye can see.
Diverse Group of Passengers
The cruise, which was aboard Blount’s 88-passenger-capacity ship the Grande Mariner, drew a diverse group from across America: Floridians escaping the summer heat and humidity; New Yorkers and Californians (always keen travelers); Virginians, Bostonians, Coloradans, and even several from Michigan, discovering their own state from a different perspective — on the water.
Passengers ranged in age from their 30s to 70s and up, with baby boomers in their 50s and 60s a major component. Among them were a husband-and-wife team of lawn bowling champions, social workers, college professors, a retired bank president, a physician, and a former Pan Am pilot, to name a few that we got to know well over the course of the week.
One woman was taking her 22nd cruise with Blount — a family-owned Rhode Island-based company that’s been in business for decades — though many, like my wife, Catharine, and I, were taking their first Blount cruise, and some were taking their first cruise with any line.
“To Go Where the Big Ships Cannot”
Blount runs small-ship cruises across America as well as the Caribbean and Central America. It’s motto — “to go where the big ships cannot” — aptly sums up our itinerary.
How many mega-cruise ships could or would dock at remote Beaver Island, one of our favorite stops in northern Michigan, inhabited by only 500 hearty souls year-round? Later, our dock on beautiful Mackinac Island was in the heart of town, near where the ferry boats leave for the mainland.
And when we docked in big cities, we pulled right up to the Navy Pier in Chicago — right in the center of the downtown lake shore action — and at Discovery World in Milwaukee, an interactive science museum within easy walking distance of the city’s historic Third Ward and the Milwaukee River.
Virtually everyone onboard agreed that small-ship cruising was the type they preferred: easy on-and-off, little regimentation, low-key entertainments like lectures and classic movies, and plenty of chances to meet and mingle with fellow passengers and crew. Yes, cabins can be a bit cramped, but there’s plenty of room on deck to stretch out in a lounge chair or take a seat at a table under the shade of a canopy, or to sit in the roomy air-conditioned lounge and read a good book.
One woman from Florida, taking her first cruise of any type, continually marveled at how much she was enjoying herself. I could tell by her expression that she was rather surprised by that. Though she and her husband were widely traveled, cruising had not previously been in their vocabulary. Now they realized that being on the water could be relaxing, comfortable, and convenient to many sites they might otherwise miss.
Those of us lucky enough to have taken many small ship cruises need to spread the word to friends and family about just how much fun they can be. I’ll try to do my part in my next few blog posts about our “Magical Lake Michigan” cruise, with thanks to Blount Small Ship Adventures.
Next up: Chicago, Illinois, to Holland, Michigan.
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