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The Smooth Cruise on Victory 1

Article and Photography by Steve Gillick

Captain Gary Kerr of the Victory 1 Cruise Ship, part of the fleet owned by the American Queen Steamboat Company, has an endearing quality about him. His distinct Sean Connery-esque, Scottish accent, along with his personable nature and sense of humour identify him as one of the key components of the Great Lakes Grand Discovery Cruise.

Captain Gary joined me on the sundeck of the ship while I was taking photos one afternoon. When I asked about the attraction of this particular cruise, he began by saying that “on the big ships you would hardly ever get the meet the captain” and then he explained that the passengers, mostly ‘very experienced travelers’, like the idea of exploring their own backyard and that the simple shore excursions allow the passengers to learn, socialize and appreciate each destination.

Later, just prior to our visit to the Niagara Region, Captain Gary congratulated the passengers in Cabin 311: “You’ve just won the draw. You get to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel”. He then thanked his multi-national staff in front of all the passengers, with pauses to allow for applause, mixed with ‘bravos”. In fact, a hallmark of the Victory 1’s charm is the friendly crew. I chatted with Lourdes the head bartender on several occasions about her home in the Philippines and the delicious foods that I enjoyed on a visit there several years ago. The Martinis that Lourdes concocted (shaken, not stirred) would have impressed any James Bond or Sean Connery!

The Victory 1 began its journey in Chicago on Lake Michigan, headed north to Holland-Musekgon, then up to Mackinac Island before entering Lake Huron to explore Little Current on Manitoulin Island. A stop in Detroit followed, as well as another in Cleveland, before cruising to Port Colborne, Ontario for visits to Niagara Falls and Niagara-on-the-Lake. The ship then traveled through the Welland Canal locks from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario with disembarkation on the last morning in Toronto.

On this abbreviated trip, we would get a taste of the Great Lakes Discovery Cruise, joining the ship for the Detroit to Toronto portion. With thoughts of stormy lakes and howling winds, I prepared myself for the worst, with sea bands around my wrists and medication, just in case. But I needed none. The cruise was smooth as silk.

The Victory 1 is a ‘small cruise ship’ with a capacity of only 202 passengers, so it was easier than expected to meet and chat with fellow travelers. The ship was launched in 2001 and after few ownership and name changes it was introduced in June, 2016 as the first vessel of Victory Cruise Lines. While the ship can do 13 knots, John Waggoner, the President and CEO of American Queen Steamboat Company and Victory Cruise Lines, noted that they prefer to keep the speed around 10 knots to avoid any undue vibration from the engines and thereby maximize the comfort of the passengers.

Waggoner mentioned that the average age of the guests was 70 years old, plus or minus 10 years. “It’s an experience for people looking for enrichment and learning on our great shore excursions, and having a desire to spend time with other passengers. Overall, it’s for people who want to explore their own backyards”. Waggoner suggested five top benefits of small ship cruising: 1) As most customers are U.S. based (with some Canadians) there are no long transatlantic flights involved. 2) Passengers feel safe on board. It’s a small ship which means greater attention to detail—people get to know your name, and those with less cruise experience are not overwhelmed by the experience 3) There are no language barriers. “The extra-friendly crew speak English” 4) There is no need to exchange currency. All the shore excursions take American dollars (although some prefer to bring Canadian for the Ontario stops) and 5) there are many cruise opportunities to travel around the world—and many of the Victory 1 passengers have done so, but there are much fewer cruise opportunities that allow you to stay close to home. “This is one of them”.

Peter and Margaret, passengers from California certainly backed up what Waggoner mentioned. “Margaret doesn’t like long flights so this was the ideal trip where we could fly into Chicago one day and board the ship the next morning. We like the idea of not having to unpack our suitcases all the time as well as the casual nature of the cruise (there are no formal dinners). But the best part is that we love traveling around the United States. It’s quite diverse and there are so many different regions to explore. The shore excursions on this cruise are very good. We’ve seen a lot”. Peter and Margaret smiled when they spoke about the crew as ‘the unsung heroes’. “They’re from all over the world. They’re very attentive to our needs”.

Each day of the cruise a copy of “The Daily Voyager” is delivered to the passengers to keep them informed about the next days’ events and shore excursions.

In Detroit we visited ‘The Henry Ford’, which according to our tour guide, is the second most visited museum in the U.S. after the Smithsonian. Displays of historic cars include a 1903 Ford Model A, a 1931 Bugatti Convertible and an absolutely stunning deep purple 1949 Mercury convertible. In addition there is “The Sunshine Special”, the very first official Presidential car built for Franklin Roosevelt in 1939 and on a more sombre note, there is the 1961 Lincoln Continental in which President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. But aside from cars, the exhibits cover railroads, airplanes, American furniture, and even Star Trek! Trekkies can enter the “Khaaaaaan” Booth and after watching a scene where Captain Kirk reacts to a threat from the villainous Khan with a horrific yell, guests can imitate the scene on video, wait for the system to “amplify the Shatnerosity” of their performance, and then see themselves actually imbedded into the Star Trek experience.

The Detroit Institute of the Arts was no less impressive with the iconic Diego Rivera murals and a magnificent art collection that covers the gamut of history from a 562 BCE tile painting of the Babylonian Mushushshu-dragon, to works by Picasso, Rauschenberg and Warhol.

In Cleveland we visited the Wade Chapel in Lake View Cemetery, designed by the stain glass master, Louis Comfort Tiffany. Then, after viewing the amazing collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art, we explored the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to interact with Robert Johnson, Elvis, The Beatles, David Bowie and other music icons.

The shore excursion in Niagara Falls featured a good dousing from the Canadian Falls for passengers on The Hornblower cruise, and then a pleasant visit to the shops, flowers and historic homes in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

The Great Lakes Grand Discovery adventure on Victory 1 is a relaxing, social experience with good food, comfortable cabins and a showcase of exciting close-to-home shore excursions, accomplished through the smooth, comfort of a small, friendly cruise ship.