Travelling from Canada to the USA, Jeannine Williamson discovers sleepy islands, giant locks and more than a touch of Americana

Mackinac Island GETTY IMAGES

Jeannine Williamson | Sunday August 07 2022, 12.01am | The Sunday Times

‘Nothing much happens here. If Cooper lost a shoe it would be front-page news,” the driver Nathan jokes as we pass the tiny offices of the Mackinac Island Town Crier. The paper is published weekly in summer but just four times over winter.

He clicks his tongue and the Belgian draught horse Cooper and his sidekick, Harvey, turn into Cadotte Avenue. Equine footwear intact, they clip-clop evenly up the hill towards the Grand Hotel on the next section of the sightseeing tour.

A row of star-spangled banners flutters lazily in the warmth of the torpid morning air above serried ranks of fiery red geraniums. Guests sway gently on white rocking chairs lining the hotel’s 660ft pine deck, the world’s longest porch. The landmark veranda was the first thing we’d spotted earlier in the day when our ship, Ocean Voyager, neared the miniature island, with a circumference of just eight miles, at the northern tip of the Michigan side of Lake Huron.

The Grand Hotel on the island

The Grand Hotel on the island SEAN MCVEIGH

Once on land, the next thing we notice is the lack of any motorised transport. Here horses are kings of the road and the 600-plus herd outnumbers the 500-strong permanent human population. Five vets are on call for them — along with three farriers that fit some 5,600 shoes a season — compared to Mackinac’s one full-time doctor.

Outside the tourist season many horses are transported back to mainland Michigan by ferry for a leisurely winter. The remainder work year-round on essential services such as refuse collection and moving goods from the port. When I return to the ship for lunch a pair are tucking into bowls of oats after delivering supplies to the vessel. Savvy ducks hover nearby, waddling back and forth to pick up leftovers.

Mackinac joins a growing list of one-of-a-kind sights on my nine-night cruise from Toronto to Chicago aboard the homely, 202-passenger Ocean Voyager. Along with its sister ship Ocean Navigator, it criss-crosses between Canada and America to cover all five Great Lakes. Memories of schoolgirl geography lessons are rekindled as our cruise director reminds us of the mnemonic HOMES: Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie and Superior.

Ocean Voyager

Ocean Voyager

However you choose to memorise them, these vast tracts of water live up to their collective name. Spanning 94,250 square miles, connected by a network of smaller lakes, rivers and canals, they’re the world’s largest freshwater system.

The 1,130-nautical-mile voyage takes us from Lake Ontario through the Welland Canal and St Lawrence Seaway on to Erie, Huron, Superior and Michigan. Often I stand mesmerised on the sun deck as I gaze across seemingly endless expanses of water, occasionally rippled by waves and small cresting whitecaps. Up to 30 miles from shore at times, with no land in sight, it’s like being on an ocean cruise. So much so that the itinerary’s two days with no ports of call are called “sea days”.

Reality hits home in Cleveland, one of our eight stops. I walk from the ship along the Lake Erie waterfront to the nearby Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, which is shaped like a giant record player. I’m distracted from the distinctive architecture by a flash of vibrant colour in the water. It’s a shoal of large goldfish, which thrive in the algae-rich environment in the shallowest of the lakes. All told there are more than 170 species of freshwater fish in the Great Lakes, including whitefish, walleye, yellow perch and salmon-like ciscoes that form the foundation of the fishing industry here.

Excursions are included in every port, such as private hop-on, hop-off bus tours with complimentary tickets to attractions such as this artefact-packed six-storey museum tracing the beat of every musical genre. Whatever music you’re into, you’ll find it here. I relive my formative disco years and linger nostalgically in sections dedicated to soulful Motown and the lush instrumental tunes of The Sound of Philadelphia.

Jeannine Williamson on Mackinac Island

Jeannine Williamson on Mackinac Island

Commercial life on the lakes is graphically brought to life in Sault Ste Marie, on St Mary’s River, Ontario. We dock right next to the imposing black hull of Valley Camp, a Great Lake’s freighter, or “laker”. After 50 years transporting goods it became an atmospheric museum, and, again, there’s free access for us. We wander through the cavernous cargo hold where an exhibit is dedicated to Edmund Fitzgerald, the biggest vessel on the lakes when it launched in 1958 and the largest to have sunk there.

In November 1975 the ship foundered during a storm on Lake Superior, with the loss of the entire 29-man crew. In a region where brutal winter storms can whip up waves to heights of 20ft and ships get stranded in ice, it’s a sobering side to the glassy stretches of water we sail through.

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Sault Ste Marie, affectionately called the Soo, is also home to the namesake Soo Locks. Built in 1855 to raise and lower commercial and pleasure craft 21ft between the levels of Lake Superior and Huron, they’re large enough to squeeze in the “thousand footers” — 13 lake-going leviathans measuring more than 1,000ft — the length of three football pitches. We’re lucky enough to be in town when one of them, the 1,004ft Edgar B Speer, which can carry 73,700 tons of cargo, passes through on its nine-hour journey along the entire St Mary’s River system. I join a crowd of self-proclaimed local “boat nerds” on the viewing platform to watch in awe as the vessel exits the locks, dwarfing the 286ft Ocean Voyager.

The CN Tower in Toronto

The CN Tower in Toronto GETTY IMAGES

You can also pay for a selection of “premium” tours on this cruise. Ranging from about £65 to £125, these include a meal at the top of Niagara’s Skylon Tower, tacked on to the included boat trip to the thundering falls.

In the motor city of Detroit I opt for the excursion to the Henry Ford museum, which charts US innovation. You can tootle around in an original Ford Model T, but it’s about much more than cars. It was fun to ride on the 1913-built Herschell-Spillman carousel, a vintage merry-go-round featuring intricately carved animals, including a goat, zebra, dog, cat and a bright green frog in a jaunty outfit.

Back on board, Ocean Voyager is a cosy ship with a traditional feel, lovely multinational crew members and a convivial atmosphere — the last partly due to the open bar included in the fare. All my fellow passengers are American, although the itinerary usually attracts a smattering of passengers from Canada and overseas.

A horse-drawn carriage on Mackinac Island

A horse-drawn carriage on Mackinac Island GETTY IMAGES

Aside from a pair of suites, the outside-facing cabins are on the snug side, although with so much to do each day you don’t spend much time there. For a start, you’ll be eating. The food is really good. Notably, lobster lovers can indulge to their heart’s content as the favourite cruise crustacean is on the “always available” dinner menu, not just a weekly treat. There is a main dining room and a top-deck buffet, the Grill, combining a great lookout spot and a more informal venue. That said, this isn’t a dress-up cruise.

As I pack my suitcase before the final mooring spot at Chicago’s historic Navy Pier, I come across a copy of the Town Crier I picked up for a dollar from an honesty box on Mackinac. The lead story is about two firework shows marking Independence Day. Maybe Cooper will have to wait for a quieter week for his 15 minutes of fame.

Jeannine Williamson was a guest of American Queen Voyages. Nine nights’ all-inclusive from £6,150pp, including flights, a two-night pre-cruise hotel stay in Toronto, excursions, wi-fi and tips, departing on May 5, 2023, from Toronto to Chicago (

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