A sunset cruise on the Georgian Bay in Bruce Peninsula National Park, Ontario, Canada.
A sunset cruise on the Georgian Bay in Bruce Peninsula National Park, Ontario, Canada. Ethan Meleg/All Canada Photos/Corbis

Ships, schooners, ferries — take your pick when it comes to cruising Lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie and Ontario. Once a major waterway for trade and transport, the Great Lakes today are enjoying a revival as a freshwater cruising destination. Start planning your trip with our Great Lakes cruising guide.

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The Lay of the Lakes

The Great Lakes stretch eastward from Duluth, Minnesota, to Sackets Harbor, New York. Taken together, they contain 20 percent of the earth's fresh water and form a natural border between the United States and Canada. The mighty St. Lawrence River connects the lakes to the Atlantic Ocean, and smaller waterways link the lakes to each other. All told, the lakes have approximately 35,000 islands — home to everything from nature preserves to tiny townships. In places where the connecting rivers make navigation difficult — such as at Niagara Falls, which connects Lake Erie and Lake Ontario — canals and locks ease the way. The American side has 4,530 miles of shoreline, hence the nicknames North Coast and Third Coast. The lakeshore geography ranges from wide sandy beaches to rocky, forest-clad bluffs. You could start your cruise in a metropolis and sail to tiny hamlets and hidden coves within hours. An online Great Lakes cruising guide is found on the Great Lakes Cruising Coalition's site. For news and articles about lake ecology and tourism, check out the Great Lakes Information Network.

Departure Ports

Great Lakes cruises depart from both sides of the border. Toronto is the main departure port on the Canadian shore. Cruises that start or end in Montreal or Quebec City pass through the Thousand Islands Archipelago, where the St. Lawrence River starts in Lake Ontario. Detroit, Duluth, New York (connecting to the lakes via the Hudson River and Erie Canal) and Chicago are the departure ports on the U.S. side. Some itineraries also end in Warren, R.I., on Narragansett Bay, after slipping across Long Island Sound from New York.