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An Expedition Cruise Is the New Way to Explore the Great Lakes

While on a Viking cruise of the Great Lakes, Jessica Burnell pilots a yellow submersible named John on Lake Superior near Silver Islet, Ontario. (Jennifer Bain photo for Vacay.ca)

In a yellow submarine named — wait for it — John, I saw the murky depths of Lake Superior in a way that only a lucky few people ever have. Now truthfully, there wasn’t that much to actually see, just one unidentified fish, a vaguely sandy bottom and the striations of a rock wall off Pyritic Island. And yet I felt euphoric, privileged and not the least bit claustrophobic sitting in that cramped space in my swivel seat under a spherical window for 30 precious minutes.

There were six passengers that day last June when the Viking Octantis anchored near Silver Islet, Ontario and let submersible pilot Jessica Burnell take John for a spin in Canadian waters. We knew that in the unlikely event that the free diver from England should fall unconscious, the sub would automatically surface within minutes. We were reassured that she was in constant contact with both the Octantis and the dive support boat hovering above us, and that we only went down about 58 metres (190 feet).

Inside the yellow sub, pilot Jessica Burnell sits between two “bubbles” that each hold three Viking cruise guests. (Jennifer Bain photo for Vacay.ca)

John (aka Sub 01) was carefully balanced by weight, with three passengers to the left of Burnell’s pilot seat and controls, and three to the right sitting in what can best be described as two clear bubbles. I had been assigned seat 03. I wore sensible shoes to transfer from the ship to a Zodiac, and then donned protective booties to hop on wee John’s floating platform and climb through the hatch and down a few stairs.

Should some freak disaster strike, we would have enough oxygen, water, and food for four days. But, of course, I was back on Octantis in time for open-faced, Nordic sandwiches, namely salmon gravlax served on white bread with mustard dill sauce, and topped by a caperberry and lemon slice. Okay, there might have been a celebratory slice of suksessterte (Norwegian almond “success tart”).

The view from inside Viking’s submersible reveals Lake Superior’s rocky floor. (Jennifer Bain photo for Vacay.ca)

Viking Cruises has sure captured attention for its four, multi-million-dollar, DNV-certified submersibles. Naming them John, Paul, George, and Ringo was an obvious nod to the 1966 Beatles song, Yellow Submarine”. But perhaps it was also a clever way to make something so foreign — taking a submarine ride, one that costs $499 USD (about $670 CAD) to boot — seem non-threatening.

I was at a Viking party at the Beverly Hilton in January 2020 when the Switzerland-based company announced it would soon send the Octantis and sister ship Polaris to the Great Lakes. The Norwegian-flagged, Polar Class ships were designed to voyage to Antarctica but also squeeze through the Welland Canal, a key section of the St. Lawrence Seaway that connects Lake Ontario and Lake Erie.

Terrestrial outings for guests of the Viking Octantis include a hike on the Chikanishing Trail. Near Killarney, Ontario, the trail travels along the shoreline of Georgian Bay. (Jennifer Bain photo for Vacay.ca)

Truthfully, I had my doubts. Who would pick the Great Lakes — where I went to summer sailing camp as a kid growing up in Ontario — over a European river cruise, an ocean cruise to somewhere like Greenland, or an expedition cruise to Antarctica?

“This region has been historically underserved by cruise lines,” Viking chairman Torstein Hagen said when he celebrated the launch of the inaugural season in 2022. “We are delighted by the warm and enthusiastic reception we have received from the local communities.”

Fast forward to 2024 and Viking’s arrival to the Great Lakes has boosted tourism in Ontario, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Ohio. My week-long Great Lakes Explorer route last year took me from Milwaukee to Thunder Bay across Lake Michigan, Lake Huron’s Georgian Bay and Lake Superior on a cozy ship that held just 378 guests (adults only) in 179 staterooms.

When the Viking Octantis sails the Great Lakes, boaters and cottagers take note. Here, the Norwegian-flagged ship is shown on Georgian Bay near Frazer Bay. (Jennifer Bain photo for Vacay.ca)

Octantis was named after Sigma Octantis, the south star. As I leafed through its curated library, I thought about how Hagen says Viking offers guests “the Thinking Person’s Cruise” in contrast to mainstream cruises. I geeked out on a science lab tour, became a citizen scientist by recording my plant and bird observations, and chatted with field research scientists, geologists, biologists, general naturalists, and ornithologists.

While the Canadian in me loved the Nordic spa’s “snow grotto” — a frosty room where machine-made snow falls from the ceiling — I was transfixed by the Hangar, an in-ship marina that housed the subs, Zodiacs, polar-tested kayaks, and 12-seat SOBs (special operations boats similar to the kind used by Norwegian special forces).

Those “toys,” as staff lovingly called them, along with the comfortable tender boat, whisked me to all kinds of adventures after I started my Viking voyage in Milwaukee by saying “ayyy” to the “Bronze Fonz” by artist Gerald P. Sawyer along the RiverWalk. The statue of actor Henry Winkler pays homage to the character Arthur Fonzarelli (Fonzie) from the sitcom “Happy Days” that was set in that Wisconsin city.

On the Viking Octantis, kayaks, Zodiacs, subs, and special operations boats are kept in an in-ship marina called the Hangar. Submersible 02 (named after Paul McCartney) is shown behind the kayaks. (Jennifer Bain photo for Vacay.ca)

On the American front, there was a horse-drawn carriage ride to the historic Grand Hotel on car-free Mackinac Island in Michigan, and a party on the Octantis deck as we squeezed through the Soo Locks.

But most of the cruise showcased Canada, mainly to curious Americans but also to a small contingent of Canadians who relished boating without having to own a boat.

In Parry Sound, the itinerary’s first Ontario stop, I took a leisurely walking tour with Emma Berton from the Georgian Bay Biosphere and learned about biodiversity while getting up close to honey bees, a snapping turtle, and a snake.

From Casson Peak, hikers can see the Viking Octantis (left) anchored in Georgian Bay but also understood why Group of Seven painter A.J. Casson was inspired by this vista to paint “Baie Fine Entrance”. (Jennifer Bain photo for Vacay.ca)

Twice I took guided hikes across that unmistakable pink granite and white quartzite of the Canadian Shield in Georgian Bay. From Casson Peak (a place that inspired A.J. Casson from the Group of Seven landscape painters) near Okeechobee Lodge, and from Chikanishing Trail near Killarney Mountain Lodge, I occasionally caught sight of the gleaming Viking ship anchored off-shore.

The best — or at least the largest, coldest, and most remote — Great Lake was saved for last. Lake Superior didn’t unleash one of its legendary storms, but gifted us with sunshine and light winds for yellow submarine rides on John and Paul. (George and Ringo are kept on Polaris.)

Travel writer Jennifer Bain stands by what remains of the Sea Lion rock formation in Sleeping Giant Provincial Park near Thunder Bay and Silver Islet in northern Ontario. (Jennifer Bain photo for Vacay.ca)

When Octantis anchored off Silver Islet by Sleeping Giant Provincial Park, we admired the flat-topped mountain that resembles the silhouette of a sleeping giant when viewed from Thunder Bay. On shore for a final hike, I saw the remains of the Sea Lion, a natural rock arch that looked like a lion sitting on its haunches until it partially collapsed.

How I loved exploring Canada while seeing the country through the eyes of excited fellow passengers. But I would be remiss not to share my four favourite things from the ship itself.

It might seem counterintuitive to love a free, self-serve, high-tech launderette since we travel to escape drudgery, but I loved not having to ration my clothes or splurge on a dry-cleaning bill.

On Viking Octantis, don’t miss the heart-shaped waffles at Mamsen’s. Be sure to top yours with thin slices of brunost, a beloved Norwegian brown “cheese” with a caramel taste. (Jennifer Bain photo for Vacay.ca)

Also on the self-serve front, there was Mamsen’s with homey Norwegian and Scandinavian fare.

Named for the Hagen family matriarch, Ragnhild (Mamsen), it is where I scored open-faced sandwiches, slices of success tart, and heart-shaped waffles from a treasured family recipe. It’s also where I first tried brunost, a brown “cheese” from Norway that tastes vaguely like a funky caramel and was served in paper-thin slices on the waffles.

Then there was the eager-to-please stateroom steward who left “a small piece of Norway” at turn-down service each night, and even more when I mentioned I was saving the squares for a chocoholic friend who sailed the route in 2022. It wasn’t ordinary milk chocolate — Freia Melkesjokolade is pleasingly luscious and made from the milk of Norwegian cows.

In the Hangar on Viking Octantis, the yellow submersible named Paul stands ready to be deployed. Clear “bubbles” that flank the pilot each seat three passengers and offer 270-degree underwater views. (Jennifer Bain photo for Vacay.ca)

Finally, there was the memorable message emblazoned on the faux leather luggage mat that the steward laid out when I embarked and disembarked to protect the luxury bed linens from my well-travelled suitcase.

“Berre den som vandrar finn nye vegar,” read the Norwegian saying that translates to “only one who wanders finds new paths.”

Wander is exactly what I did, seeing my home province from two unique vantage points — the largest cruise ship to sail the Great Lakes and from a tiny yellow submarine named after my favourite Beatle.


At Mamsen’s on the Viking Octantis, self-serve, open-faced, Nordic sandwiches are served on the same tableware that the Viking chairman’s family has favoured for almost a century. (Jennifer Bain photo for Vacay.ca)

Rates: Starting from $8,995 CAD per person based on double occupancy, the eight-day Great Lakes Explorer itinerary goes between Milwaukee and Thunder Bay from June to September. Ocean-view staterooms come with Nordic balconies with floor-to-ceiling, distortion-free glass in ledged windows that can be partially lowered. WiFi, multiple restaurants, and 24-hour room service are some of the many inclusions. There is one complimentary landing or shore excursion in every port of call, plus optional excursions for a fee. Airfare is extra. Viking has other routes that cross the Great Lakes.

On a Zodiac tour with Sail Superior,  Thunder Bay’s shipping heritage was on view. (Jennifer Bain photo for Vacay.ca)

While in Thunder Bay: Do make time to see the northern Ontario city at the start or end of your Great Lakes Explorer journey. I ate Finnish pancakes (it’s a local tradition) at Kangas Sauna and a grilled Caesar with black garlic dressing at Bight Restaurant & Bar, explored fur trading history at Fort William Historical Park, and visited the Terry Fox Monument to pay homage to the one-legged runner whose Marathon of Hope for cancer research ended in Thunder Bay in 1980. At the Fort William First Nation’s scenic lookout at Anemki Wajiw-Mount McKay (Thunder Mountain), I gazed over Lake Superior. And with Sail Superior, I travelled by high-speed Zodiac to see American white pelicans, bald eagles, a shipwrecked barge, and grain elevators and other buildings that spoke to the port city’s shipping heritage.

Where to stay: When the Delta Hotels Thunder Bay opened on the waterfront in Prince Arthur’s Landing in May 2019 with 149 rooms and suites, it became the area’s first four-star hotel. The onsite gastropub, Anchor & Ore, pays homage to Thunder Bay’s shipping and mining history. Room Rates: A recent search of the property’s website showed summer rates starting at $305 per night. Address: 2240 Sleeping Giant Parkway, Thunder Bay, ON (see map below)

Tourism Thunder Bay information: VisitThunderBay.com

Jennifer Bain is a flag-waving Canadian journalist who gravitates to cold climates and has proudly visited all 10 provinces and three territories. She lives with her family in Toronto but has a retreat on Fogo Island in Newfoundland and an obsession with the Arctic. Jennifer is a recovering newspaper travel and food editor, cookbook author and author of travel books on Newfoundland and Labrador, Ottawa and Calgary. She freelances for magazines, newspapers and online publications.