This Luxe Expedition Ship Sails Surprisingly Close to Home — Here's Why I Loved My Recent Trip

Thanks to a new expedition ship in the Great Lakes, you don’t have to travel far to find natural wonders.

Viking Octantis cruise ship in Michigan's Soo Locks
Viking Octantis navigates the Soo Locks, between Lakes Huron and Superior. Photo:

Courtesy of Viking

I’m a staunchly anti-morning person, but there I was, stumbling out of the shower at 5 a.m. Along with a few other early risers aboard Viking Octantis, I was up on Deck 7 soon after sunrise to watch the launch of a weather balloon. As we floated along Georgian Bay, on the Ontario side of Lake Huron, our group counted down and then marveled as the radiosonde-toting balloon whizzed into the sky. Then we hustled down to Expedition Central, the chart room on Deck 2, to watch weather data come through in real time.

It was just one of many scientific activities available on Octantis, which began sailing to both U.S. and Canadian ports in the Great Lakes last summer. Over tea in the Explorers’ Lounge, Viking’s head of science and sustainability, Damon Stanwell-Smith, told me why this vessel, which spends part of the year in once-in-a-lifetime destinations like Antarctica, is now sailing in more familiar waters as well. “Guests are interested in loving what you know and protecting what you love,” Stanwell-Smith told me. A combination of COVID, climate change, and local pride, he said, has driven an increased interest in experiencing firsthand the world’s largest freshwater-lake system.

Octantis and sibling ship Viking Polaris, which arrived in October 2022, were purpose-built to be narrow enough to fit through tight spots like the Soo Locks, which connect Lake Huron and Lake Superior. The vessels are also designed to minimize environmental impact: a dynamic positioning system allows them to stay in place without anchoring that might disturb the seafloor, and lights dim at night for bird safety.

The spa on a cruise ship
The Spa on board Viking Octantis.

Courtesy of Viking

Octantis will feel familiar to anyone who’s sailed with Viking — and pampering to just about anyone. Within 10 minutes of going aboard, I’d snagged “The Museum of Whales You Will Never See: Travels Among the Collectors of Iceland” from the 4,000-volume library. The next day, I enjoyed Nordic bathing in the spa, complete with a body scrub and alternating trips from steam room to snow grotto. I ordered lobster tails and enjoyed sushi at the World Café.

But it was the hands-on science that I’ll remember most. Our first morning on Lake Michigan, I scampered around Finse Terrace, an outdoor area on Deck 2, with ornithologist and expedition crew member Andrew Keaveney. Rather remarkably, we were able to ID underwing moths and snout butterflies that came to land on the ship — and even found a sleeping bat in one of the exterior stairwells. On Lake Huron, I boarded a six-person submarine for a trip to the lake bed, where I observed the shells of invasive zebra mussels. I also zipped across Lake Superior in a “special operations boat,” launched from Octantis, to see the eerie, now-submerged entrance to a 19th-century silver mine.

A small yellow submarine with Viking cruise ship guests
Guests can explore underwater on the Viking submarine.

Courtesy of Viking

The day before disembarking, we stopped in Silver Islet, a small community on the Canadian side of Lake Superior. Once home to lodes of silver, the area is today filled with off-the-grid summer cabins. It’s not the kind of place you get to accidentally, but thanks to Viking, I was able to meet Todd Miller, the great-great-grandson of a miner who first staked a claim in 1870.

After our tour of town, I grabbed a cinnamon roll at the general store and took a table with views over the water. In some ways, it felt just like watching the lake back home in Chicago. But after my weeklong expedition, I had a new appreciation for the region I’ve called home my entire life. I’ve always known that the Great Lakes are the heartbeat of our country. It’s exciting to know more people now have the chance to see them up close.

A version of this story first appeared in the December 2022/January 2023 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline “The Thrill of the Familiar.”

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