MUSKEGON, MICH. - The Pearl Mist isn’t like any other ship in the Port of Muskegon this late-summer afternoon. Sleek and white and six decks tall, the 335-foot, 210-passenger cruise ship is the picture of luxury next to working vessels and historic military craft.
Two days into a weeklong cruise that started in Chicago, passenger Jill Hoose of Texas offered rave reviews.
“We’ve been on 26 cruises and I’ve enjoying this one so much,” she said. “There’s not such a rush, rush, rush feeling. There are not 3,500 people standing in lines.”
She was on her way back to her cabin after spending the morning sightseeing in downtown Muskegon. The Pearl Mist is in its third season of Great Lakes cruising. Muskegon just finished its first full season as a port of call.
Michiganders likely will see more cruise ships like the Pearl Mist on the horizon.
“We have two cruise lines invested in the Great Lakes quite heavily at the moment,” said Stephen Burnett, executive director of the Great Lakes Cruising Coalition. They include Pearl Seas Cruises, owners of the Pearl Mist, and Victory Cruises, which operates the Victory I, a ship that can accommodate about 200 passengers. Would-be travelers can book both of them and two other ships through the Ann Arbor-based Great Lakes Cruise Company.
Plantours, based in Germany, is expected to bring its 400-passenger ship the Hamburg to the Great Lakes next season, Burnett said.
"We believe that the potential for the Great Lakes is as high as 30 ships cruising during a season, which is basically from May to October,” Burnett said.
The Great Lakes region also is among three finalists for the honor of cruise destination of the year, bestowed by Seatrade Global, an international cruise-industry trade organization. Other finalists are the Baltic region and the Asian city-state of Singapore. The winner will be announced on Sept. 22. The Seatrade Global judging panel is made up of cruise industry executives.
What you won’t see in Great Lakes cruising: Behemoth ships with 5,000 passengers and their own onboard amusement parks. Those ocean-going vessels are simply too big to fit through the canals and locks that connect the ocean and lakes. They also don’t fit the Great Lakes vibe.
Instead, think compact ships with luxurious amenities and a low crew-to-passenger ratio.
“We are a boutique industry,” Burnett said. “There are probably 60 to 70 ships worldwide that fall into that category, and more of those ships are now being built.”
Typical passengers on Great Lakes cruise ships are a little older than ocean-going cruisers and often have many thousands of miles of travel behind them, said John Keereweer, Pearl Seas representative.
“The people attracted here are very well-traveled,” he said. “They’re not on a cruise for the glitz and glamour of shows, not for the casinos. They’re interested in history and culture.”
Fees in 2017 for a seven-night cruise range from $4,980 to $6,630 per person, double occupancy; 11 nights in the Great Lakes and Georgian Bay costs from $7,520 to $10,900.
Keereweer said some passengers may choose the Great Lakes because of concerns about the safety of international travel at the moment. Others welcome a fairly new travel opportunity.
“They want to see what’s in their back yard,” he said. “A lot of people over the summer have come up here to get away from the heat.”
For many, it’s a first-ever trip to the inland seas that contain 20 percent of the world’s fresh water supply and an introduction to Great Lakes history and lore.
The Pearl Mist made its first voyage in 2014. There's plenty of outdoor space and panoramic views from the top deck, which features a covered lounge area and sunny spots equipped with comfy white rocking chairs. There's a small library aboard the ship, and two large lounges on different decks equipped with comfortable chairs and sofas and huge windows to allow water views. Live entertainment is scheduled daily, sometimes from local bands in ports of call.
The ship's dining room is furnished with round tables and sumptuous floral centerpieces. The ship offers open dining instead of timed seatings, and the dining room can accommodate all of the passengers at once. Local produce and fish are often on the menu. Lobster is likely to show up for at least one of the day's meals, said Akin Akgulen, hotel director on the ship.
Captain George Ciortin, who is Romanian, has worked on larger, ocean-going ships. He was so excited about the Great Lakes assignment that he brought his wife and daughter along.
"It's something I was anxious to see," he said. "It's quite beautiful everywhere I've been."
Burnett said laying the groundwork for a Great Lakes cruise industry has been years in the making.
“When we started this initiative, I would travel with a road map and a marine chart,” he said, convincing cruise operators that the Great Lakes were a worthwhile destination.
His work also includes helping potential port cities develop the capacity to move passengers on and off the ships and point them to attractions.
Muskegon scrambled to do that last season, when the Pearl Mist stopped for the first time because its usual port, nearby Holland, was unavailable.
Two decades ago, when Muskegon was redesigning its waterfront, a county administrator envisioned a future with cruise ships and created a suitable spot at Heritage Landing. Several years ago, Chamber of Commerce officials contacted Pearl Seas to let them know the city was willing and able to serve as a port.
This year, it’s on the regular schedule. Trolleys shuttle passengers downtown to visit the Lakeshore Museum Center, the Hackley & Hume historic site, which includes the restored homes of two 19th century lumber barons, and citywide public art or the beach.
Great Lakes ports include big-city cool in Toronto, Chicago and Milwaukee. Burnett also said he sees plenty of potential in Detroit.
“The poor city has had a bad rap because of all the stuff that has happened there, but when you fly over it in a helicopter and look down and look at it as a cruise port, there are few places on the Great Lakes that compare,” Burnett said.
Downtown attractions within easy reach of a ship include Greektown, the Motown Museum, the Detroit Institute of Arts and other museums, Burnett said. Pearl Mist passengers also have the option of visiting the Henry Ford and Greenfield Village in nearby Dearborn.
“The amount of attractions around the Great Lakes are what we call an itinerary planner’s dream,” Burnett said.
(2016 © Lansing State Journal)