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Cruise The Great Lakes On A Viking Expedition Vessel

TheTravel logo TheTravel 10/4/2022 Lavanya Sunkara
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Quick Links

  • Science At Sea
  • Great Lakes Excursions
  • The Water Toys
  • Onboard Octantis

Expedition cruising brings to mind visions of remote destinations like Antarctica and the Galápagos. But Viking’s expedition ship, Octantis, not only ventures to the Great White Continent, it journeys to some of the largest freshwater lakes in the world -- the Great Lakes. Lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario are so expansive they’ve garnered the nickname, Inland seas.

What sets Octantis apart is that it’s a research vessel first and a luxury cruise ship second, with the latter funding the former. This means passengers not only receive world-class service onboard and educational and adventurous offshore excursions to some of the most pristine coastal lands in the United States and Canada, but they also witness scientific research related to climate change, weather conditions, pollution, and biodiversity.

Viking launched Great Lakes itineraries in the spring of 2022 and will run voyages here from May to September annually. The ship will then travel south to Antarctica with departures from October to February.

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Science At Sea

When a vessel built for research visits distant places, it’s an expensive endeavor, which may only be funded once or twice, leading to limited data. Cruise ships, on the other hand, have the unique opportunity to return multiple times over a period of months, giving onboard scientists a chance to study and report back regularly, leading to discoveries and predictions that would otherwise be lost. This is what takes expedition cruising with Viking to a new level; it allows guests to be a part of the solution to the ongoing crisis impacting water bodies and marine life.

Viking’s expedition ships – both Octantis and its sister, the just-launched Polaris – are state-of-the-art research vessels of Viking quality, says Dr. Damon Stanwell-Smith, Viking’s Head of Science and Sustainability and a marine biologist.

“There is primary research that’s being undertaken that’s shared in the public domain with world-class academic partners who wouldn’t otherwise be able to get to these remote places to gather this information,” he adds. “That information, in turn, feeds into the protection of those places.”

Onboard, guests can tour the Science Lab and learn about the work that’s being done, which includes analyzing microplastics in the water, sea surface temperature, CO2, and more. The ship boasts two submarines equipped with cameras to capture images of the underwater world, its inhabitants, and shipwrecks that dot the Great Lakes.

Octantis is also one of the only civilian ships that serve as a weather balloon station. Guests can witness the releasing of the helium balloon, equipped with a radiosonde sensor from its tail, as the sun begins to rise. Viking partners with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and sends its data to the U.S. National Weather Service.

Great Lakes Excursions

Now, one may wonder, what is there to see and do in the Great Lakes? The Great Lakes offer pristine natural beauty and opportunities to learn about Indigenous cultures, which makes this cruise alluring. On the Great Lakes Explorer itinerary, visitors sail from Milwaukee to car-free Mackinac Island, Michigan, where more than 80% of the land is protected as a state park, before heading towards Ontario’s Georgian Bay in Lake Huron.

Nicknamed “the Sixth Great Lake,” Georgian Bay offers abundant hiking opportunities, a chance to learn about the Anishinaabe peoples, and the conservation efforts currently underway at the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve of Georgian Bay. Ports along the way include Parry Sound, Killarney, and Frazer Bay, with opportunities to hit the trails of Algonquin and Killarney Provincial Parks. Frazer Bay, located on a remote part of the eastern tip of the North Channel in Georgian Bay, provides an idyllic setting for kayaking and hiking.

After several invigorating days in Georgian Bay, guests enjoy a relaxing day at sea as the ship passes through the human-made marvel and one of the busiest systems of its kind in the world, the Soo Locks. The parallel locks connect Lake Superior to the lower lakes and beyond to the Atlantic Ocean, bypassing the 21-foot fall of St. Mary’s River.

Passing through the locks, past the twin cities of Sault Ste. Marie in Michigan and Ontario is a riveting experience as the 665-foot long Octantis slowly maneuvers between the walls, with a foot to spare, as onlookers wave and cheer. Guests gather at the bow of the ship, inside the Explorer’s Lounge with floor-to-ceiling walls, and on the decks to take in both sides of the U.S./Canadian border while sipping Irish coffee.

Once through the locks, the ship enters the coldest and deepest of the Great Lakes and the largest freshwater lake in the world by surface area -- the mighty Lake Superior. Deep blue expands in all directions with no shore in sight; rolling waves and strong currents gently rock the boat as it makes its way towards Silver Islet at the mouth of Thunder Bay.

Here, guests can hike the boreal forested playground of Sleeping Giant Provincial Park, a bird lover’s paradise and home to Nagochee, the sea lion rock formation. Learn about the unique mining history of Silver Islet, cruise past the abandoned, submerged silver mine, and stop by the only general store in town for souvenirs, such as a handmade necklace with a mined silver stone. Here’s a guide to some other enticing lake towns on the Great Lakes.

The Water Toys

While the outdoor adventures are a big draw for this itinerary, the ship’s boating offerings make time spent on the water more exciting. Octantis features a large hangar with two 12-seater Special Operations Boats (referred to as “SOBs”), Zodiacs, kayaks, and their most prized acquisitions -- two yellow submarines, named aptly after the Beatles’ songwriting duo, John and Paul. Rest assured, George and Ringo fans; they are the namesakes of the yellow subs on Polaris.

Zoom alongside the coastline, and around islands and islets, on the “SOBs” at whip-fast speed. The twists and turns are not for those who may get motion sick, but the rest can truly enjoy an aquatic roller coaster of a ride.

Those looking to burn off some calories from fine dining onboard can get some exercise on kayaking outings. The real fun, though, is getting to experience the underwater world in one of the submarines. While one may not see exotic fish, the experience is nonetheless exhilarating, knowing they are among the few to have gone under the surface of the Great Lakes.

Related: Lake Winnipeg: Why People Love The 'Other' Great Canadian Lake

Onboard Octantis

True to Viking’s signature aesthetics, public spaces are spacious, with floor-to-ceiling windows, comfortable lounge seating, and loads of literature about adventures to the far corners of the world adorning the shelves. Sit back with a good book and a cocktail, and take in the scenic views of pine tree-laden mountains and rocky shorelines. After fun-filled days spent hiking or doing water activities, throw away those while listening to the Classical Duo in the Library or the Explorers’ Lounge Duo in the eponymous lounge.

Those looking for a more secluded space can head down to The Hide, a cloistered speakeasy (that one must “discover”) replete with dark lighting, well-appointed furniture, and plenty of whiskey and spirits served straight up that are sure to lead to contemplative conversations.

Despite Octantis being the only large ship currently cruising the Great Lakes, it is still relatively small, accommodating 378 guests, making for an intimate experience where the staff and crew know passengers by name and needs. Beautifully designed staterooms offer modern amenities, a Nordic balcony (floor-to-ceiling retractable glass down-sliding window), a dry closet, and plenty of regular closet space, along with a couch and a king-size bed, flat-screen TV, and a heated floor in the spacious bathroom. Free Wi-Fi allows guests to stay connected to the world.

The LivNordic Spa and Fitness Center is unlike other Viking offerings; the mineral pool faces wall-length windows on the port side to soak in the ever-changing scenic views. Additional amenities include a sauna, steam room, a thrilling snow grotto shower, and a must-try -- a cold bucket shower as the ultimate Scandinavian chaser after sweating in the heated rooms. A guest favorite is the Badestamp, a tucked away room with a hot tub and perpetually half-open window that lets in cool air.

For those looking to lounge by the pool, the area behind the World Café offers plenty of seating and opens up to the Aquavit Terrace featuring three pools of varying temperatures: the Frigidarium, Caldarium, and Tepidarium. One of the signature treatments is the Nordic Restart, a reinvigorating 80-minute escape featuring an exfoliating cranberry body scrub and full body massage, topped with a soothing scalp rub, leaving one in a state of blissful retreat.

No one goes hungry on a cruise, and this is especially true on Octantis. With multiple dining venues, there is a menu and ambiance to please every passenger. The World Café is not an average buffet – with plentiful portions of diverse cuisine from around the globe – featuring a raw bar, sake, and fresh sushi prepared by the chef. They offer special lunch menus, including a taste of the Great Lakes. Then there’s The Grill, offering wedge and Caesar salads, steaks of every cut, lobster tail, and a Norwegian hot dog (a spiced sausage on a tortilla). For a special treat, don’t miss the hand-rolled, cold stone ice cream.

For a more formal atmosphere, The Restaurant offers dinner by reservation with exceptional service, while Manfredi’s provides delicious Italian fare in a festive setting. Mamsen’s (named as a tribute to the Founder’s mother) is an adorable café with savory soups, tasty cakes, and finger sandwiches to satisfy those midday cravings.

One of the more unique offerings of this itinerary is the inclusion of lunch built into the schedule at various ports. Guests to Mackinac Island can experience the grand buffet at the historic Grand Hotel and savor a chef-made fish fry al fresco at the Killarney Mountain Lodge overlooking the beautiful bay. This gives guests a change of scenery while still enjoying Viking’s food offerings.

The Aula panoramic auditorium, with a retractable 4K projection screen located at the bow of the ship, is arguably one of the most advanced venues for learning at sea. With massive glass walls offering 270-degree views, it’s hard not to be inspired by the scenery during lectures about birding, the state of Georgian Bay, scientific collaborations, and more.

Beyond the sliding glass walls lies the Finse Terrace, named for the Founder’s beloved dog. This outdoor lounge area, with comfortable couches and lava rock “fire pits,” is the perfect place to take in the sunset and ponder about where to go next on Octantis. Perhaps to Antarctica?

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