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, including Lake Michigan cruises, Lake Superior cruises and more.
Here are 12 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.
Don’t forget to let us know if we missed one of your favorite boat cruises in Michigan – and bon voyage!
- The hook: Classic sailing ship
- Where: Traverse City
- Call: 800-678-0383
- Duration: Two hours (Manitou), anywhere from two hours to full day sails (Scout)
- Max passengers: 59 (Manitou), 6 (Scout)
Channeling an 1800s cargo schooner, the tall ship replica Manitou 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. Or, take a more intimate, private tour on Scout, a classic sailing yacht. 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. Check for special event cruises on these ships, too, if you’re interested (3 p.m. sails on the Manitou come with a serving of Moomers Homemade Ice Cream!).
- 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, Wisconsin, 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 the Great Lakes, and it’s got six historical designations! But that doesn’t mean it lacks amenities. Your kids can play in the playroom, 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.
- 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).
4. Inland Seas Education Association (ISEA) Great Lakes Discovery Sail and Exploring Microplastics Sail
- The hook: A floating classroom
- Where: Suttons Bay, Traverse City, Alpena, Mackinaw City and others depending on the sail
- Call: 231-271-3077
- Duration: 3 hours (GLDS), 2 hours (Microplastics)
- Max passengers: 35
Kids not only become sailors-in-training during this voyage; they also try out being a scientist for the day. With multiple 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 they’ll get to help trawl for fish, collect plankton, sample the lake bottom and much more. Along with the Great Lakes Discovery Sail, there are several other options, including astronomy sails at night, which would be great for older kids, teens and their parents. Another tour available is the two-hour, hands-on “Exploring Microplastics Sail,” during which kids will learn about the dangerous impact microplastics have on our Great Lakes.
- The hook: Perfect for winding along the lake
- Where: Holland
- Call: 616-393-7799
- Duration: Two hours (dinner cruises)
- Max passengers: 120
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 DJ onboard who takes requests! Take a turn on the karaoke machine, too. Make sure to have your kids ask the captain to toot the ship’s whistle.
- The hook: Adds a little speed
- Where: Traverse City
- Call: 231-947-1730
- Duration: One-and-a-half hours (other cruises run two-and-a-half hours)
- Max passengers: 40
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 nets hanging just above the water’s waves. Bonus: There are two restrooms onboard. The Nauti-Cat is the largest commercial catamaran sailing on the Great Lakes. The Kids Cruise is offered Thursdays-Sundays, starting June 30, 2016. Expect your kids to help raise the sails, drive the boat and more! Other cruises not geared toward kids are available, too.
- 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, Wisconsin. You can bring the car with you or leave it in Muskegon.
- The hook: See Saugatuck 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.
- The hook: Breathtaking scenery in the Upper Peninsula
- Where: Munising
- Call: 906-387-2379
- Duration: Two hours and 15 minutes to two-and-a-half hours
- Max passengers: 150
To enjoy the sights and sounds of Michigan’s Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, hop aboard one of five ships, with one being a catamaran, that sail through Lake Superior. Have your camera ready! Heads up: cruises frequently sell out, so purchasing tickets in advance is highly recommended.
- The hook: Great for local sightseeing
- Where: Detroit and Wyandotte
- Call: 313-843-9376
- Duration: Two hours
- Max passengers: Generally, 125 (Wyandotte), 175 (Detroit); May change based on the day/boat used
Hop aboard the Diamond Jack and take a cruise down the Detroit River! These close-to-home, narrated sightseeing tours give passengers a great look at our local waterway and its notable features. Choose from two time slots (1 and 3:30 p.m.) at each dock. The two that take off from Rivard Plaza take people past the Detroit and Windsor skylines, Belle Isle and the Ambassador Bridge. The 1 p.m. from Bishop Park in Wyandotte sails up to the Ambassador Bridge and back, while the 3:30 p.m. swings by Boblo Island and back. Note: Tickets are purchased as you board the boat, so organizers suggest arriving about a half-hour early to get a good spot in line. No food allowed on the boat, but snacks are available for purchase.
- The hook: Experience the famous Soo Locks first hand
- Where: Sault Ste. Marie
- Call: 800-432-6301
- Duration: Two hours
- Max passengers: 150
Heading way up north? Taking a sightseeing tour here is a must! These boat tours that take you through the Soo Locks have been running since the 1930s. The sightseeing opportunity allows families to experience “locking through” Lake Huron to Lake Superior, which means sitting on the lower water as it’s raised 21 feet up to meet the level of Lake Superior. Lunch and dinner cruises and other special event cruises are available, too. Tickets can be purchased online but not necessary.
- The hook: A cool view of our state’s east coast lake
- Where: Port Huron
- Call: 810-984-1500
- Duration: One-and-a-half hours
- Max passengers: 100
Public sightseeing cruises are narrated and take you through the St. Clair River into lower Lake Huron and under the Bluewater Bridge that connects Michigan to Ontario, Canada. You’ll even see a lighthouse along the way! Expect to learn a little history, too, and learn about the work of the big freighters that pass right up close. Tickets are first come, first served, but you can call ahead or order online as well.
This post was originally published in 2011 and has been updated for 2016 by Megan Krueger.