Following our recent trip around the Great Lakes of North America, here is what you can expect on board a Victory cruise.
“What do you mean, you’re flying to Detroit to get on a ship?” my perplexed dad asked. During the next few minutes a conversation ensued, highlighting that, whilst many people know about the Great Lakes, a lesser known fact is that ships sail on them and take you to some iconic parts of the USA and Canada.
Although this particular itinerary started in Chicago, time was tight for our fleeting visit and so Detroit was our embarkation point for the journey. Having arrived from the UK and conducted the obligatory USA customs process, we took a cab from the airport to the dock. Of course, when booking a Victory cruise, all transfers are included but, as this was essentially a site visit, a cab was more than enough and pretty cost effective.
We were met by Aaron, port agent in Detroit, who explained how the immigration works with the entry and exit from Canada to the USA. Essentially, the cruise line takes control of all aspects of this process during the voyage and, whilst guests are required to step off the ship and pass through a face to face customs procedure, it is rather swift and efficient.
Leaving the port customs building and walking around the corner, we were greeted with our home for the next few days…the magnificent 200-passenger Victory I.
To bring an element of context to one of the first realisations of cruising on the Great Lakes, the port was opposite a shopping centre and, whilst we were in Detroit, Canada was only a stone’s throw away across the water.
Victory I is a well-kept and traditional vessel that is reminiscent of a river vessel yet, due to her size, has a feel of a bijou ocean ship. The make-up of her public areas is primarily the main lounge, bar area, central restaurant and dining alternative, along with the expansive outdoor sitting/lounging space.
Sail away that evening set us on a path to Cleveland.
Each evening on-board starts with the option to join the Cruise Director for a pre-dinner cocktail party and journey update. John Grantham was Cruise Director for many of the voyages. With past experience as a Cruise Director with Celebrity Cruises (and as a stuntman), John brought together nearly the entire complement of guests prior to dinner and detailed the excursion programme for the following day. This included what is to be seen and experienced, what free time is available and what the remainder of the evening on board has to offer, all delivered with keen attention and witty banter.
Our first night was spent dining in the main restaurant. The menus comprise a mix of American/Canadian cuisine accompanied by fine dining dishes expected from a quality establishment. The menu changes on a daily basis and there was never a situation where the choice left me undecided.
Evenings on board tend to involve rather low key entertainment with inclusions such as quizzes, music from the resident musical duo or performances from local artists brought on in the port of call. This more traditional and personal style of evening activity brought the guests together for an hour or two after dinner and, following this. guests tended to rest in preparation for the next day or retire to the lounge bar for conversation. With all drinks included in the fare* there was ample opportunity to indulge a little (or a lot) in your favourite tipple without worrying about the damage to your onboard account. *There are only a few high-end drink exceptions at an extra cost.
Accommodation on Victory I is more than ample for a ship of this size. For this voyage, I enjoyed a stateroom with a door that opened directly onto the open deck. Whilst some may not find this the most comfortable, I found it a refreshing change to the norm. For those where this setup is not preferred, it is worth noting that most staterooms on board Victory I follow a more conventional way of opening to interior corridors with categories based on size and position.
The cabins on board are ample sized albeit not excessive in size. As most time is not spent in the cabin this matters not. The cabins hold all the standard amenities you would expect including TV channels (mainly US and Canadian) but most important across the ship is the free Wi-Fi. A code is given to you as you board and, whilst it isn’t Virgin’s super-fast fibre speed, it is good enough when also accompanied by hotspots that you can pick up from the shore side.
Bathrooms are modern and in good condition with quality products included. All have a shower, toilet and vanity sink units.
Breakfasts allow you three opportunities. In the main restaurant, there is the option of hot and cold self-service buffet or waiter service hot food from the breakfast menu.
However, my favourite was always the self-service option available on deck. A selection of pastries, meats, cheeses and Canadian salmon accompanied by fruit, coffee and a beautiful sunrise made for a perfect start to the day.
Our time in Cleveland was conducted in much the same way as all the Great Lake port days. An excursion is included in the fare with Victory Cruise Lines and this excursion takes in the key points of that day’s destination. As the sun rose, Victory I pulled into the city and couldn’t have got much closer to the action as she docked in the waterside car park of the Cleveland Brown American Football Team. Cleveland was a particularly interesting day, as there was very little I knew about the city and, following breakfast, the ship disembarked to a small wave of trolley buses.
A half-day tour took us around some amazing sights and gave a vast amount of depth to the history and significance of the destination, its importance to the United States and its famous inhabitants. We stopped around eight times in order to gain more insight and meet local guides and was not in any way a city bus tour that can be provided by some cruise operators. In essence, it gave a marvellous snapshot of a beautiful city in very much a hands-on tour.
Depending on the destinations, the tours are generally around half a day in duration as this gives free time for guests to return back to explore a little more on their own. On this day, having completed the tour, we returned to Victory I for what could have been a substantial buffet lunch. However, just a salad sufficed on this day. Following lunch, we took a walk from the ship back into Cleveland city centre, looked at some of the sights and then took a stroll to the famous Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, having been provided complimentary tickets by the ship. All guests were given tickets, resulting in an afternoon reunion of cruise guests in the interactive museum. I am told these gestures are the sort of thing Victory always try and do for their guests where they can.
It was mid-afternoon before we arrived back on the ship and were greeted with the prospect of a themed afternoon tea. Complimentary afternoon tea takes place every day on board and consists of a number of varying themes. Today’s was a Venetian afternoon tea which, having only had a salad for lunch, I felt was well worth the participation.
A delicious selection of hand-made sandwiches and cakes were accompanied by a large choice of teas (and they serve milk too).
Journeying to the next exciting destination enables you to see how relatively unique the Victory Cruise Lines itinerary through the Great Lakes is. There are times where you feel like you are on a small ocean ship whereby there is no land for as far as the eye can see, however, there are also periods on the voyage where you are entrenched in the heart of the locations in the main cities or through canals and waterways. In this respect, it feels neither like an ocean nor a river cruise but actually delivers a delightful mix of both.
One evening was spent travelling through the Welland Canal. This canal links Lake Erie with Lake Ontario and is our passageway to Niagara. The many locks enabled us, any many small cargo ships, to descend the many meters in height over an entire evening of sailing.
We used this opportunity to try out the alternative dining option on board. This ‘hot rock’ experience is located on the back of the ship and consists of an exquisite three-course meal whereby your main course is cooked by you on the hot rock in front of you. Accompaniments of potatoes and vegetables are presented and advice is on-hand from the restaurant staff to assist in your cooking times.
The result was a wonderful meal experienced whilst transiting the Welland canal en-route to a magical destination.
One place that is hard not to get excited about would be Niagara. Many have seen pictures of the falls, even if only watching Superman, but today there was an opportunity to experience it first-hand.
Niagara is a little way from where the ship is moored on this occasion but not to worry as a coach journey took us from the ship’s side through the marvellous Canadian countryside where, at times, the USA was just a whisker away.
For some bizarre reason, I had wrongly assumed that Niagara Falls would be rather remote. How wrong I was as our coach pulled up in a place that resembled a mini Las Vegas. High rise hotels, Starbucks and…well…I’m sure you get the picture. Was I disappointed? I don’t think I was, I was just surprised by this urban sprawl.
Having also not given much thought to the geography of Niagara Falls, I was most pleased when it became obvious that seeing the falls from Canada gives a much better view than from the American side.
Looking at a map, it seems clear and it made for some great pictures from the shore.
Tickets for the boat tour are included in the Victory Cruise Lines fare and, again, whilst many may have heard of the Maid of the Mist boats in the USA, on the Canadian side, Hornblower offers their alternative. Needless to say, if you want to get the full experience of the Horseshoe Falls, a poncho is a good idea.
We were given some free time to walk around Niagara itself before our tour continued to Niagara on the Lake.
En route, we journeyed to a nearby vineyard where lunch and wine tasting made for a great event and, again, it was all included in the fare.
This was a quaint, traditional and pretty area that should not be missed when visiting the falls.
Our journey was near to its finale.
The evening was spent in the company of fellow guests and crew including our Captain, who had made the cruise so much more interactive due to his continued presence around the ship.
Whilst some cruise experiences are described as luxury due to the vain nature in which the hardware (the ship) is displayed with brass, mirrors and crystals galore, others take account of the software (the food, experience, staff) to a greater extent. My time on this journey made it clear that, whilst you won’t find crystal staircases on board Victory I, the collective experience that Victory Cruise Lines provides is second to none.
The ship is beautiful, traditional in nature, but beautiful. The food is excellent and equalling the quality you would find in the fine dining restaurants ashore. It is, however, the staff and crew that made every guest feel like their needs were the only needs and made such a difference to the onboard experience. When you accompany such an attention with an itinerary that, frankly, you would struggle to do by any other means than an arduous coach holiday, it becomes clear why Victory Cruise Lines offers high-end, once-in-a-lifetime, experiential adventures.
As the ship pulled up to the harbour in Toronto, it was time to head home. But not before taking the time to explore the city. We had taken the decision to defer our flights for a few hours, allowing time to take the train from the airport back to Toronto city centre. Whilst pre and post-cruise options can be arranged in advance, we didn’t think to do this, hence our impromptu 20-minute train journey into the city itself.
This spectacular metropolis, in which we spent but a few hours, has confirmed my need to return and explore further. What I saw of Toronto, the CN tower and a sports bar, were a snapshot of a wonderful place to end a holiday.