One thing that keeps being repeated by almost everyone familiar with both Great Lakes cruises and general cruises is the intimacy of the experience on the lakes ships. In the cruise industry, bigger has been perceived as better for many years. Ocean going ships are often capable of carrying 2000 to 3000 passengers. This is a population several times larger than many small towns across the country.

Great Lakes cruise ships are different. They are smaller versions of their ocean going cousins, smaller so they can navigate the shallower waters of inlets and bays, but still large enough to be comfortable. The larger lakes liners typically run about 1/10th the size of their ocean going counterparts. With passenger lists under 200, it is often possible for passengers to come to know the crew on a first name basis. The smaller lakes liners may carry only a couple of dozen passengers as in the case of the schooner Manitou, which only has cabins for 24 passengers. With a group of passengers that small, most will come to know each other on a first name basis. The crews of these ships are highly trained and able seamen, and with such small passenger lists, they are usually able to take the time to answer questions.

Of course, much depends on which cruise line you choose, and which ship. The largest ship on the Great Lakes is usually about 400 passengers, and the smallest may be just a handful. The larger ship will offer more amenities–perhaps a ship’s store, a wider choice of meals, a licensed bar, a dance floor. On the other hand, the smaller ship may offer to take you beach combing in places that the larger ship wouldn’t dare enter, or it might have a wine tasting tour serving wine from local vineyards. Smaller ships have many niche markets they serve, and you are likely to find one that fits your needs and your pocketbook.

On a smaller ship you may be able to take a shorter tour, one that only lasts a couple of hours. Small tour operators are more likely to offer a couple of short, theme tours everyday. So, you might go wine tasting, or ice cream eating, or star gazing and be home the same day you left. That is less likely with the larger ships that need to make longer tours in order to pay the bills.

Great Lakes cruise ships may be smaller, but sometimes smaller is better.  It all depends what you are looking for in your cruise experience. Just don’t write the smaller craft off. Many people are reporting they like the little ships as well or better than the large ones.

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