Luxury cruise ships, nearly absent from the Great Lakes since the rise of the automobile, are returning to the country's inland seas. Midwestern port towns have never looked so exotic.

João Canziani

Sometimes, at this latitude, in the upper reaches of Lake Huron, the aurora borealis shimmers above the horizon. The last time I saw the northern lights was in 1991, when I was a passenger hitching a lift aboard the Joseph L. Block, an ore carrier, from a steel mill near my Indiana hometown to the docks in Duluth, Minnesota. A dozen years later, I'm out on the same stretch of water—this time aboard Le Levant, a 330-foot French ship, rather than a Midwestern freighter. But I'm the only passenger awake, at 11 p.m., to witness the pale green curtain of light. My 90 fellow cruisers are asleep in their cabins, saving their energy for another relentless morning of touring the towns we visit during our eight-day cruise from Milwaukee to Toronto, passing through Lakes Michigan, Superior, Huron, Erie, and Ontario. With no one around but an officer on watch, I wander the deserted decks, play the piano in the empty lounge, take a seat at the captain's table in the formal dining room, where crystal, sterling, and china await another five-course dinner from our French chef, Patrice Mick. Horn blasts from a passing freighter shatter the silence.

A luxury liner navigating the Midwest's inland seas is something of a spectacle, a sight unseen since the 1930's. From the Gilded Age until the close of the Jazz Age, industrialists and socialites from Detroit, Chicago, and Milwaukee sailed the Great Lakes on a fleet of passenger ships that were as elegant as their transatlantic counterparts. By the end of World War II, with the increase in auto and air travel, cruise ships on the lakes had all but disappeared. Since then, American outfitters haven't given much thought to these waters, which on paper seem far less sexy than they are in reality. But a few years ago, three European companies saw the appeal of freshwater voyages, and a full-fledged resurrection is now under way. The German-owned, 400-passenger Columbus took its maiden journey from Hamburg up the St. Lawrence River to the lakes in 1997. Le Levant was launched a year later, and spends every June and July in the Midwest; a German vessel, the recently christened Orion, made its Great Lakes debut last month. Cruise enthusiasts who've sailed all the typical itineraries—the Caribbean, Hawaii, Alaska—have been buying up the berths on all three ships since they hit the docks. Not only do these European-run trips reintroduce a domestic waterway to well-traveled passengers, but they also impart a visitor's enthusiasm for North America, with onboard experts lecturing on local heroes and Native American culture, and guiding land-based tours to historic sites from Michigan to Montreal.

Standing on the shore of Georgian Bay, near Lake Huron, in 1615, French explorer Samuel de Champlain believed he had found the South Sea, a passage to the Orient. That a seasoned sailor might mistake an inland lake for open ocean seems counterintuitive until you actually venture onto the Great Lakes and see how impossibly vast they are. It's difficult to comprehend how much water is out there: 6 quadrillion gallons covering 94,000 square miles, a fifth of the world's surface freshwater, enough to submerge the whole of the contiguous United States under 9 1/2 feet. Between Lakes Huron and Erie, in the middle of one of the most densely populated regions of North America, except for occasional glimpses of smokestacks and other signposts of civilization, the horizon is a flat blue line on all sides.

When I crave a respite from the evening quiet, I duck onto the bridge, something I wouldn't be allowed to do on the Queen Mary 2. Maurice, the French first officer, is at the helm (which, I'm disappointed to discover, is a finger dial on a console, not a wooden wheel), and he launches into a spirited defense of sailing the Great Lakes. "French Jesuit missionaries came to this area in the seventeenth century, and we lost control of it in 1763," he says. "But to us, this is nonetheless new. The French do not understand what it's like on these waters. Our lakes are puddles in comparison." The captain, Jean-Philippe Lemaire, assures me that he shares his first mate's enthusiasm for this unusual cruising destination, one where American values seem to have stood still for centuries.

Captain Lemaire is 47 and reminds me of Fred Astaire: handsome, deeply tanned, dashing in his dress whites. He often reminisces about his estate in Brittany; his son, a cadet in the Merchant Marines; and his late grandfather, the maître d' aboard the Normandie. He talks passionately about the engineering particulars of Le Levant: its ice hull, hardened for adventure expeditions; its 11-foot draft, shallow enough to navigate rivers. He tells me about the time he piloted the ship from Long Island to Antigua through a hurricane that lasted four days, then describes navigating among icebergs in the uncharted Arctic and journeying down the Amazon. "To arrive in Iquitos, Peru, when it's raining the dogs and the cats and I cannot see the dock, and to suddenly hear 'La Marseillaise' from a band on a dock in the middle of the jungle," Lemaire says with a sigh, "that is a gift." When asked if the lakes might seem a bit tame by comparison, Lemaire smiles. "A true professional can make even sailing into Cleveland seem special."

Exploring port citiesis half the appeal of a Levant cruise; its other authentically American calls include Chicago and Grand Haven, Detroit, and Port Huron in Michigan. On Mackinac Island, a Midwestern version of Nantucket where cars have been banned, I rent my own horse and buggy. Just off Whitefish Point, on the northeastern tip of Michigan's Upper Peninsula on Lake Superior, a flat-bottomed tender deposits me on a marina of dilapidated wooden boats, some sunk and melting into the sand. I wander the docks, venturing into a run-down barn with SMOKED FISH painted on the side, and make small talk with two young Chippewa while they transfer their catch of whitefish from a leaky skiff to the bed of a battered pickup truck. Down a forested road, I wander through the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, which houses a brass bell recovered from the Edmund Fitzgerald, an ill-fated ore carrier that has lain broken and submerged in the icy waters since 1975, not far from Le Levant's anchor. In Dearborn, a pair of tour guides takes a group of us to the Henry Ford Museum to inspect George Washington's camp bed, Edgar Allan Poe's portable writing desk, and the Lincoln Continental that carried John F. Kennedy on the day he was assassinated.

If ships were cars, Le Levant would be a Cadillac. Unlike the spartan steel interior of a Great Lakes freighter (the nautical equivalent of a semitruck), Le Levant's inside is all hardwood and marble. My lower-deck cabin, the smallest of 45 state rooms, has a plate-glass picture window and a bathroom with a teak floor, a marble washbasin, and a shower pod that seems to have been designed for the International Space Station. From the outside, the ship is more private mega-yacht than commercial liner, gleaming white and navy blue and flying the French flag.

Captain Lemaire dotes on the pristine ship as if it were a favorite child, rewarding only the most careful lockmasters who lead it safely through the eight locks between Lakes Michigan and Ontario with a case of Bordeaux at the end of the summer season. Over the ship's public address system, Jacques, the French-Canadian cruise director, encourages passengers to feel a similar pride of ownership, telling them to enjoy another day aboard Le Levant, "your very own private yacht."

On Lake Huron, there's a sangria party by the ship's swimming pool, and carefree couples sashay around its edge to "The Girl from Ipanema," performed on electric piano. Out on Lake Erie, breakfast is presented in the Restaurant Panoramique, a sun-soaked glass-walled salon. As we approach our next port of call, there's a rush to the buffet. I pile my plate with sugared brioche and make my way up to the observation deck, where I join a knot of my fellow passengers—some so at home that they stand in the fresh air nibbling at croissants, wearing little more than terry-cloth robes and slippers.

There's nothing but seamless gray all around us. But directly ahead, through the morning haze, a city is rising from the lake like pillars of illuminated crystal. The early sun glints off the windows of skyscrapers, scattering shafts of light outward and upward in all directions. The image looks precisely as I have imagined Kitezh, the mythical city that is said to lie beneath the waters of a great lake in Russia. Once a year, the story goes, on a perfect summer day like this, the lost city reveals itself, emerging from the mist, and church bells sound throughout the land. Just before we reach the breakers, we round a buoy, tolling across the waves as it signals our arrival in Cleveland.

GREAT LAKES CRUISE CO., 888/891-0203; Eight-day cruise from Milwaukee to Toronto aboard Le Levant from $3,599 per person, double.

TED KATAUSKAS is an editor at Portland Monthly magazine.