Ten thousand years ago, when the Ice Age’s glaciers retreated, the result was the Great Lakes – five massive lakes along today's U.S.-Canadian border region. Collectively, Lake Superior, Lake Huron, Lake Michigan, Lake Ontario and Lake Erie comprise the Earth’s largest body of fresh water.
What’s the appeal of a Great Lakes cruise? John Waggoner, president and CEO, American Queen Steamboat Company (AQSC) and the recently acquired and relaunched Victory Cruise Lines, puts it this way: “We’re catering mostly to a U.S. clientele that still [hasn't] been able to see most of America and who don’t want to take a flight over to Europe or elsewhere."
He says these folks want to keep "the hassle factor low," yet "they still want to see something that they haven’t seen. Very few guests of ours [loyal AQSC guests] have had the opportunity to see the Great Lakes.” Tour operators, including Pleasant Holidays, had encouraged AQSC to start Great Lakes itineraries, Waggoner said, and now, that's a reality.
While Victory had sailed the Great Lakes several years back under different owners, the AQSC organization acquired both vessels and the line's name earlier this year. But AQSC and Victory remain separate brands, the former a river line, the latter a separate, small-ship, oceangoing brand.
Between January and May, more than $2 million was spent to renovate Victory I and another $1 million on Victory II. Both carry 202 passengers, double occupancy, and will sail Great Lakes itineraries this summer. Last week, Travel Agent sailed three nights from Detroit to Toronto on the revitalized Victory I; check out our original slide show above for ship shots.
AQSC & Victory - The Differences
What's different about these ships versus AQSC's river vessels? Waggoner said that unlike Mississippi River cruising on flat-bottom river boats, the small oceangoing ships may have a bit of motion here and there. That said, we thought this particular cruise was quite smooth.
He also said Victory's guests may lose sight of land at times, something that doesn't usually happen on a river cruise. Northern scenery on the Great Lakes is quite different, he said, in comparison to AQSC's most popular itinerary, Mississippi River sailings into the heart of the Old South.
The Great Lakes itineraries also visit larger metropolitan areas, such as Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and Toronto, and some of those major cities are visited in the middle of itineraries. That's unlike the Mississippi River cruises, which do have the big cities of New Orleans and Memphis as anchors, but in between, the ports of call tend toward quaint destinations and smaller towns and cities, he said.
The Industrial Revolution in North America started in the Great Lakes, Waggoner added, giving new things for passengers to see and do on land: “I was just amazed at the industry up here with railroads and cars and everything else, so I think it’s completely different.” Still, while big metro areas are visited on the Great Lakes, there are also quaint spots, such as Mackinac Island.
For pre- and post-cruise hotel stays, though, those larger cities offer more touring options. "Whether you’re into the shopping, art or museums…it’s just different,” he noted. He also cited the different wildlife that guests may see up north; this reporter spotted five white-tailed deer along a road near Niagara Falls.
Foreign Flagged Vessels
Unlike AQSC’s vessels, which are American flagged, the Victory vessels are foreign-flagged, even though they were built in the United States. Constructed by Atlantic Marine in Jacksonville, FL, they have an American hull, built with U.S. steel and American labor, one of the requirements of the Jones Act.
But one previous owner switched the flagging. So now, "we’re currently working on trying to reflag it,” says Waggoner. He estimates that could take at least two years and cost $2 million. The process requires a Congressional exemption.
Currently, the Victory ships remain foreign-flagged. Many of the international crew members have worked on the ships for several years. Many hail from the Philippines, but they come from other countries too. The head chef is from Hungary.
Overall, Travel Agent felt that crew members were quite friendly with guests and most had a “can do” attitude. Cabin service as well as interactions with the purser's desk and in the lounge, restaurants, bar and other spots around the ship was warm and friendly. Crew called guests by name.
Victory I can best be described as a comfortable, small coastal cruiser. It's resort casual onboard. No, this is not a luxury experience, but it’s nice enough. We liked the fresh ship interior spaces. The ship has new paint, new wallpaper, new carpeting, the addition of moldings, new artwork (still being installed), new bedding and linens, new flatscreen TVs, new tiling, some new windows, a revamped buffet area in the dining room and more.
The prime update? Waggoner said more than $1 million was spent to enclose the top-deck, aft space, which became the Grill alternative dining venue.
Our cruise was the second operated by the ship and many past AQSC guests were onboard. Most had sailed multiple times on AQSC’s river ships and were looking for something different. They've repeatedly asked Waggoner: “What else do you have for me?”
Most guests were between 65 and 85, some a bit younger, others a bit older. Several adult children were also sailing with an elderly parent. Overall, it was a mature audience.
But now the line is also reaching out to tour operators and travel agents, and Waggoner believes the guest mix will adjust a bit as the voyages become more well known: "We’re looking at new databases that we’re reaching out to and we’ll attract new clients.” That said, he still expects a large number of loyal AQSC guests to continue to sail on these vessels.
Fares hover around $500 per person daily, reflecting the smaller ship size (with costs spread over fewer guests). Those fares also include complimentary beer, wine, soda and cocktails; many free shore trips; and free wi-fi. “Our cost structure is also substantially higher on the Great Lakes,” Waggoner said.
Deck 1 is home to the large Coastal Dining Room, the main dining room that serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. Dinner was full table service for all courses with fine wines poured generously. One nice touch was that the line offered a "line up" of dishes in the dining room's entry point -- so cruisers could see what to expect before sitting down to look at the menu.
We also appreciated that while the menus featured typical American fare such as chicken, pork chops, beef and pasta, the line offered some international options, too, including an Indian dish as an entrée one night. Lunch and breakfast in the Coastal Dining Room featured buffets, along with some "order from the menu" items.
A second, alternative dining venue, the 50-seat Grill, is atop the ship on Deck 4. Previously open air, it's now enclosed. Guests walk outside from the interior stairwell/elevator lobby to reach it. No extra fee is charged. The dinner menu featured everything from prime rib to fish and chips, from chicken to pasta, along with salad fixings and multiple fresh breads and desserts.
Since the region has vineyard areas, particularly around Niagara Falls, will the line offer local wines onboard? It’s not a simple thing to simply bring local vintages onboard, said Waggoner, given local liquor license regulations. “Right now, everything – believe it or not – is purveyed out of Miami and driven up,” he said, but he also said to give it some time as they hope to begin to incorporate some of the local wine products into future cruises.
Lounge and Bar
The prime meeting spot on the ship is Deck 2's spacious Compass Lounge, the place for everything from shore excursion briefings to trivia games, from live music for dancing to disembarkation talks. It also hosts an evening cocktail hour with drinks and hors d’ouevres served by the wait and bar staff.
The ship's main entertainment consists of a “live” three-piece band. The musicians were excellent and some also played solo at times. It’s a change, though, from the more robust entertainment on AQSC.
Wagonner is seeking “lounge entertainment” with live music and dancing on the Victory vessels, but not the Broadway-style shows of AQSC. Also, “it’s one thing when you have 400 passengers, it’s another when you have 200,” he says.
Compass Lounge has casual, upholstered chairs and couches, cocktail tables, magnificent chandeliers and elegant ceilings, plus a large dance floor. It’s a lovely spot for guests to gather.
At the rear of the lounge is a coffee and tea bar with complimentary fresh-baked cookies or pastries. Forward in the lounge is the entrance to The Tavern Bar, a comfortable watering hole with wood appointments and a maritime feel. From the bar, guests can also reach the outside bow of the ship.
More Public Spaces
Mid-ship on Deck 2 is the Purser’s Desk, as well as a small exercise room; exercise equipment consisted of three machines plus free weights and a Pilates ball. Just around the corner is a small beauty salon and spa treatment room. Guests can book hair salon services or a massage; the price list is available in staterooms.
Elevator? Yes, there is one large, mid-ship elevator on the vessel, and it goes to all four decks, including all guest accommodation decks. The elevator does not go to the top of the ship, a sun deck.
We stayed in #324, a small but comfortable stateroom with a large bed convertible to two twins. One welcome upgrade was the replacement of mattresses with new mattresses used throughout the AQSC fleet, said Waggoner. We slept soundly on the new bedding, which also includes Egyptian cotton sheets, a soft duvet and comfortable pillows.
One quirky thing? The former operator used thin mattresses, so when the new, thicker mattresses were added, it raised the height of the bed a bit too high for some short-in-stature guests. For example, I had to request a step stool to get into bed comfortably.
Victory is already working to correct this issue. Two workers were onboard during our sailing to cut three inches off the metal bedframes -- just enough to make it easier to get into bed, but also not too much so that guests can still put their luggage under the beds. More workers will join that effort this week. Waggoner expects the work will be completed within two weeks.
Our cabin also had a narrow desk with desk chair, plus three separate, elongated storage areas. One with open shelves and drawers was positioned adjacent to the desk; a flatscreen TV was above that and viewable from the bed. Another storage area had more drawers and a safe, and a third could be used for hanging clothes and contained two robes and slippers for guest use.
The small bathroom was compact, with one sink and a shelf below; the amenity tray included shower caps, plus L'Occitane de Provence shower gel, hand lotion, shampoo and conditioner. The small shower – requiring a step "up and over" from the main bathroom floor -- had excellent water pressure and temperature control.
Our cabin, #324 seemed the smallest of the cabins we viewed, although one slightly bigger, #214, had essentially the same configuration – just a bit more space between the bed and the walls on either side and a bit wider desk. Another cabin, #404, on the top deck had blue chairs outside on the verandah (not a private verandah) that guests could use.
This vessel also has some suites, but we were not able to view them, as they were occupied by guests. All staterooms and suites on Victory I are ocean view and have daily housekeeping service. If guests need their clothes washed, laundry service (but no dry cleaning) is available for a nominal fee; the prices are listed in a stateroom pamphlet.
If guests need medical assistance, a doctor is onboard and guests can visit the shipboard infirmary.
Smoking is only permitted outside in designated areas; no smoking is permitted anywhere inside the vessel.
Victory I’s cruise last week was an appealing Great Lakes journey with many included tours. In Detroit, motorcoaches took guests to the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, MI, with a guided tour in the morning, and to the Detroit Institute of Arts in the afternoon.
One aside from this reporter? It was refreshing to see how much progress has been made in revitalizing Detroit’s downtown area.
In Cleveland, a morning trolley tour covered 20 miles and the hot spots around town, while a shuttle and admission to the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame was set up for the afternoon.
From Port Colborne, Ontario, a shuttle took guests for a full-day tour to Niagara Falls with included tickets for the funicular and the Hornblower boat ride to the falls; guests were given pink plastic ponchos and got very wet, but everyone seemed to enjoy the experience.
The motorcoach then traveled to Chateau des Charmes for a winery tour and lunch in a large white outdoor tent, before guests were given free time at Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Victory provides each guest with a complimentary audio headset system; it recharges in the stateroom, and then they take the headset ashore to hear commentary while taking photos or admiring the scenery.
Pros & Cons
Pros? Top management from Victory Cruise Lines sailed onboard during the initial cruises to help with any issues and talk with guests. They also helped past AQSC guests understand how and why the products are different. That was nice to see. Plus, Waggoner was proactive with the media in answering all questions over a series of days.
Overall, we liked this comfortable, coastal cruise ship. We also felt Victory I seemed fresh with the updates completed. No, it doesn't have the bells and whistles of bigger ships, but it’s a nice, relatively simple product, which we liked. Dining and shore trips were quite good.
Most notably, the crew was superb. They knew their jobs and were warm and friendly with guests, calling them by name almost immediately. That's a good sign for such an early start to the line’s history with the new owners.
Cons? The shore excursion manager needed to let guests ask more questions after her presentations, rather than cutting off the discussion (night-after-night) when people still had questions. People kept saying, "no, wait over here is a question" when someone clearly had their hand up.
Our top "con," though, was the wi-fi for Internet service. While it was nice to have free wi-fi, it performed poorly, particularly when most guests were back onboard and accessing it all at the same time. One guests told me he got up at 3 a.m. for decent connectivity. It's a common complaint we hear on many ship products, but it does need addressing. Waggoner is aware of the issue.
Will the line introduce themed cruises, as AQSC offers? “My team will tell you, I’m one of those guys that always says, ‘let’s just do the basics right,'" said Waggoner. So, his focus right now is to assure service, dining, entertainment, accommodations and shore excursions are all running smoothly.
That said, “we’ll start noodling on that [the potential of themed cruises],” he adds, citing a lot of things that could be arranged with Detroit – the cars. “You could do car clubs and everything else.” For now, though, he’s focused on the basics.
The company is also looking at trying to do some seven-day cruises, not just the longer ones, “as it’s an expensive price point to start, and then you multiple that by 10 days versus seven days, and if most people are shopping competitively for a seven-day cruise, they go, ‘oh my gosh’” in comparing the typical seven-day ocean cruise pricing with a 10-day small ship cruise.
Victory does have competition in the Great Lakes region, most notably from Pearl Seas Cruises’ Pearl Mist. Also, Ponant, Hapag-Lloyd Cruises, Blount Small Ship Adventures and a few others sail the Great Lakes. That said, Victory plans a robust Great Lakes schedule. “We’re trying to stay on for five or six months," said Waggoner. The line will also sail St. Lawrence/New England cruises early this fall.
Limiting the competition, though, are the ship size/tonnage restrictions needed to transit the Welland Canal (connecting Lake Ontario and Lake Erie) and many locks. That rules out many large ships.
Given the need for new schedules to be put together and port details worked out, both Victory boats will be laid up this winter. Then, in 2020, they'll be back on the Great Lakes in summer and will operate Canada/New England sailings in fall.
Then one ship will remain in late fall/winter 2020 along the Eastern Seaboard with a foreign port call at Grand Bahama Island in the Bahamas, home to Freeport. “I like Grand Bahama,” Waggoner said. “It has a great harbor. There are some great hotels there.” The other ship will sail along the Eastern Seaboard but then transition to Mexico’s Yucatan and Central America for the winter season.
A third ship will join the fleet too. Currently under construction, the 200-passenger Ocean Victory will sail seven- to 10-night Alaska voyages during summer 2021. For more information visit www.victorycruiselines.com.