Best Places to Set Sail in Michigan

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Flanked by Lake Michigan to the west, Lake Huron to the east, Lake Superior to the north and a spot of Lake Erie to the southeast, our Great Lakes State is full of boating opportunities – not to mention the many rivers and lakes in between!

So why not add something different to your family vacation this year with a boat ride or two? Michigan offers a variety of cruising experiences, from a gentle sail to a narrated historical voyage to a chance to play scientist onboard. Whatever your kids' interest, there's a family cruise to match.

Here are 10 to get you started. After speaking to several sea captains, we can tell you that all are friendly and primed for questions (the staff, too). They want to share their joy of sailing with you and your family. Call or check websites for current season dates, times and rates. Bon voyage!

 1. The Tall Ship Manitou

  • The hook: Classic sailing ship
  • Where: Traverse City
  • Call: 800-678-0383
  • Duration: Two hours
  • Max passengers: 62

Channeling an 1800s cargo schooner, this tall ship replica boasts a length of 114 feet with a 21-foot-wide beam. The size of the ship ensures smooth sailing for those without true sea legs. While there are themed cruises available, the real draw of this vessel is its picturesque sails that make passengers feel like they're stepping back in time.

2. S.S. Badger, Ludington

  • The hook: Feels like a large, commercial cruise ship (yes, in Michigan!)
  • Where: Ludington
  • Call: 800-841-4243
  • Duration: Four hours
  • Max passengers: 600

Venturing across Lake Michigan from Ludington to Manitowoc, Wis., the S.S. Badger is the largest car ferry to venture into the lake's waters. In fact, it's the only coal-fired steamship in North America, and it's got six historical designations! But that doesn't mean it lacks amenities. Your kids can play in the arcade, catch a movie, grab dinner and more. If you're looking to take a loop around the lake and through Chicago, consider making this cruise part of your adventure.

3. Sleeping Bear Dunes Cruises

  • The hook: A taste of wildlife
  • Where: Frankfort
  • Call: 231-352-8102
  • Duration: Two-and-a-half to three hours
  • Max passengers: 100

Starting in Frankfort and winding through Lake Michigan all the way past Point Betsie Lighthouse (one of the most photographed lighthouses in the state), this cruise has plenty to see. The captain narrates the journey with interesting facts about the geology and history behind the area – including the huge sand dunes.

4. Detroit Princess

  • The hook: A little music and sailing, close to home
  • Where: Detroit
  • Call: 877-338-2628
  • Duration: Varies
  • Max passengers: 1,500

With the heart of a dinner ferry boat but all the amenities of a modern ship (yes, there's air-conditioning!), the Detroit Princess packs an afternoon of fun with live Motown music and a buffet served in large, stately dining rooms. Plan on dressing up a bit for this cruise along the Detroit River, which takes off within shouting distance of the Cobo Center. The boat includes eight convection ovens, which turn out an array of dishes like prime rib and crab-stuffed salmon served on one of four main decks (there's also viewing areas on the fourth and fifth decks).

 

5. Inland Seas Education Association (ISEA) Family Ecology Sail

  • The hook: A floating classroom
  • Where: Suttons Bay and Traverse City
  • Call: 231-271-3077
  • Duration: 3 hours
  • Max passengers: 25

Kids not only become sailors-in-training during this voyage; they also try out being a scientist for the day. With two ports and school groups as frequent onboard visitors, ISEA knows how to cater to kids. From the moment children set foot on board, they're put to work manning the sails and then going through six education stations placed throughout the ship. (Your kids can even take a turn at the helm!) Along with the Family Ecology Sail, there are several other options, including night sails.

6. The Holland Princess

  • The hook: Perfect for winding along the river
  • Where: Holland
  • Call: 616-393-7799
  • Duration: Two hours (dinner cruises)
  • Max passengers: 100

Designed to look like a Victorian-era paddle-wheel riverboat, this cruise meanders through Lake Macatawa and Lake Michigan (lake conditions permitting). Along with a live narration during the journey, there is a singer onboard who takes requests! Take a turn on the karaoke machine, too. Make sure to have your kids ask the captain for a bit of treasure – he's got treats onboard and will even let some youngsters toot the ship's whistle.

7. Nauti-Cat

  • The hook: Adds a little speed
  • Where: Traverse City
  • Call: 231-947-1730
  • Duration: One-and-a-half to two-and-a-half hours
  • Max passengers: 43

For something truly unique, cruise through West Grand Traverse Bay aboard a catamaran. The 47-foot ship offers smooth sailing as well as sightseeing from the four nets hanging just above the water's waves. There are two restrooms onboard and complimentary snacks throughout the journey. The Nauti-Cat is the largest commercial catamaran sailing on the Great Lakes. Expect your kids to help raise the sails!

8. Lake Express

  • The hook: A vacation across the lake
  • Where: Muskegon
  • Call: 866-914-1010
  • Duration: Two-and-a-half hours
  • Max passengers: 248

Looking to include a little sightseeing along with your trip? Take off on a high-speed ferry from Muskegon to Milwaukee, Wis. You can bring the car with you or leave it in Muskegon.

9. Saugatuck Boat Cruises

  • The hook: See Kalamazoo from a different point of view
  • Where: Saugatuck
  • Call: 269-857-4261
  • Duration: One-and-a-quarter to one-and-a-half hours
  • Max passengers: 150

For a journey through Kalamazoo River, Lake Kalamazoo and even into Lake Michigan (lake conditions permitting), this leisurely cruise offers a live narration of the local history and sights along the way.

10. Pictured Rocks

  • The hook: Breathtaking scenery in the Upper Peninsula
  • Where: Munising
  • Call: 800-650-2379
  • Duration: Two-and-a-half to three hours
  • Max passengers: 150

To enjoy the sights and sounds of Michigan's Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, hop aboard one of four motor-powered ships that sail through Lake Superior. Have your camera ready!

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