I am excited, as this is my first cruise in many years exploring a part of the world I really know nothing about. I’m sailing from Milwaukee in America to Thunder Bay in Canada onboard Viking’s new expedition cruise ship, Octantis, cruising three of the Great Lakes – Michigan, Huron and Superior, the largest freshwater system in the world, all connected by a series of rivers. The ship is unique for many reasons. The Octantis looks physically different with a bow that could be mistaken for a Philippe Starck designer superyacht as though carved from a piece of ice.
Then there’s the long and square stern with the most fabulous Finse Terrace (a relaxed outdoor lounge area just above sea level with recessed heated seating and ‘firepits’) named after the Finse Plateau in Norway, where some of the greatest polar explorers did their expedition training in preparation for their North and South Pole expeditions.
Sitting by the open fire watching the sunset, my destination is neither pole or Norway, it’s not an ocean, but rather the Great Lakes skirting Canada and North America.
The Octantis was launched earlier this year, and newly launched sister ship the Polaris is designed by the same experienced interior designers, nautical architects and engineers that have designed the Viking river and ocean ships. Built especially for expedition, the ship is small enough to transit Welland Canal in the Great Lakes and stable enough to cross the Drake Passage heading to Antarctica.
I was fascinated that each time we anchored off-shore we never actually anchored. The ship has dynamic positioning technology allowing the ship to port without dropping anchor, which of course can damage the surrounding marine environment. Controlled by a button in the bridge, the system uses the global dynamic positioning to operate the movement of the forward and stern thrusters.
And that’s the thing: everything onboard has been so well considered down to the smallest subtle details, all curated for the best experience for each passenger. You often forget you’re on an expedition cruise ship, but rather a luxury lodge as you watch the world slide past.
“After modernising river cruising and reinventing ocean cruising, the move to create ‘The Thinking Person’s Expedition’ made perfect sense,” says Michelle Black, Managing Director of Viking Australia and New Zealand. “Our guests are curious explorers and they want to travel with us to familiar and iconic destinations but they also want to travel further. Viking Octantis and Viking Polaris are groundbreaking ships in their design and feature a number of industry firsts, including the Hangar. [They are] built for safety and comfort with extensive on-board amenities, and are designed specifically for the polar regions and to transit through the lock systems of North America’s Great Lakes.”
Vikings Octantis is just over 200m long with a 23m beam (the widest part of a ship) and able to host 378 guests. For Viking’s fiercely loyal base of repeat passengers in search of education and enrichment as opposed to entertainment, this expedition ship is their everything, delivering immersive destination- focused trips experiencing nature and different cultures.
The ship was at full occupancy when I sailed and yet there was a feeling of spaciousness that always appeared uncrowded. “We like to define an expedition as a ‘journey with purpose’ and have built the vessels and guest experience to match this, so demand has seen the first season of the Great Lakes sell out,” says Black.
The Scandi contemporary design is pared back featuring a neutral colour palette with nautical blue highlights. It’s all about the suggested details, like the beautiful blue-patterned carpets in some corners of public spaces taken from drawings of an ancient compass. In a lot of ways, the ship feels like both luxury lodge and well-designed modern natural history museum, with its own working science lab, and lounges and living room areas with open bookcases lined with books ranging from modern art to discovering the globe through an explorer’s experience, all curated by London’s Heywood Hill bookshop. There is, however, a level of detail, quirk and personalisation, particularly in public spaces that can’t help but make you smile. Life-sized sculptural Indigenous birds made of felt – all ringed with museum-like descriptions around each leg – echo that of a museum drawer of curiosities, sitting proudly in the Explorers’ Lounge.
The range of black-and-white photos, some oversized and lining halls and stairways, throughout the ship offer a snapshot of wildlife and explorers and enhance this feeling of stepping into a modern-day natural history museum. You can plug into an audio presentation and walk around the decks listening to the background of each photo and artwork, much like some major city art museum. Through the Viking Art Guide app you can access commentary from Viking’s Karine Hagen, as well as art curators and experts about the art collection.
Each deck has a different photographic theme of work – intrepid female explorers on Deck 2, early polar explorers on Deck 3 and canine companions of explorers on deck 4 – all an ode to the Viking’s Nordic heritage. The artworks on the Octantis are in a range of mediums from digital to oil paintings, sculpture and photography, all curated and selected from established and emerging artists.
Science on deck
As part of Viking’s partnership with NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), each expedition ship is an official launch station of weather balloons, adding to the 102 stations globally, and making them the world’s first civilian ships to be fully operational.
As the science team launches the weather balloon from the top deck, I can’t help but get caught up in the anticipation and countdown. The balloon is made of biodegradable latex that is filled with helium and has a small radiosonde transmitter and sensor unit attached to it that broadcasts wind, temperature and pressure data down to the ship every second. What is fascinating is that this exercise is also simultaneously happening around the world as weather balloons collect essential data for global weather patterns and climate predictions. After the launch I head down to Expedition Central and see the weather data arriving in real time as the balloon ascends.
The 30-plus Viking expedition team includes scientists, biologists, geologists, field researchers, submarine pilots and kayak guides, all experts in their field as they take part in science projects across the Great Lakes. Experiments like the weather balloons are all part of working relationships with partners like the NOAA, and include the Scott Polar Research Institute at Cambridge University and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology which uses ‘ebird’ and ‘Merlin Bird ID’ programs.
Using drifter buoys and FerryBox sensors to monitor, research, analyse and gain data from the surrounding environment, the onboard working science lab is where the expedition team familiarise guests with equipments and explain how it all works. I took part in the Citizen Science Experience, learning about the onboard field work and data gathered that contribute to understanding the Great Lakes and the surrounding natural world.
Choose your adventure
There are levels of participation across the ship where you can join the expedition team. They might be as simple as watching wildlife on the outer decks, where the staff are happy to answer any of your questions as they point out species of interest using your supplied binoculars, or analysing plankton and the microplastic study back in the science lab.
The Viking expedition ships are also part of the collaborative project Seabed 2030, which aims to bring together all available bathymetric data to produce the definitive map of the world ocean floor by 2030, making it available to all as the ship charts the world’s ocean floor.
The covered in-ship marina called The Hangar has a 25m slipway that makes it easy for guests to get on and off the Special Operations Boats away from wind and waves. The fleet also includes Zodiacs and two of the six-seater $4.5 million piloted yellow submarines, with two on each expedition ship. They are affectionately named Paul and John on the Octantis and Ringo and George on the Polaris . Viking founder and chairman Torstein Hagen loves the Beatles so much, he chose the colour yellow for each submarine, a salute to his favourite band, and named them accordingly.
Cruise passenger Patty Hopkinson from Brisbane said in taking a ride off the coast of Killarney in Georgian Bay, “The submarine was much more spacious and getting in and out was much easier than I thought it would be. We saw fish and it was fascinating to be below the Great Lakes experiencing a world I had never seen.”
Zodiacs also let you observe without disturbing the environment as we slowly patrol the Killarney coastline for wildlife. As we get closer we see a family of Canadian geese (apparently they mate for life), and a very shy beaver who had been seen earlier making a home nestled into the bank along the lake shore. The beauty of this protected biosphere reserve – with its 30,000 islands forming one of the world’s largest freshwater archipelagos – is much respected. The smoothed and polished surfaces of the pink-shaded granite rocks along the shoreline indicate glacier scour due to the abundance of the potassium mineral.
The Special Operation Boats, with a price tag of $1.2 million each, deliver adrenaline-making moments. The day we climbed aboard, guide Loreen Niewenhuis shared her knowledge and love of the Great Lakes. We learned more about the geology, hydrology and natural history of the largest freshwater lakes in the world, and saw a bald eagle in a huge nest with chick.
The spray and speed of the boat just made it an adrenaline rush with lots of laughing as we got wet speeding around the lake. The boats are the same used by the US military, modified for Viking, complete with shockwave seats.
Feat of engineering
This adults-only luxury expedition ship with no casinos, no formal nights, no children or waterslides is incredibly technologically savvy. I am fascinated in how this ship got into the Great Lakes and will then once the season is over travel to Antarctica. Designed for the region, it will journey through the Welland Canal, a key section of the St Lawrence Seaway and one of the most outstanding engineering feats of the 20th century. The canal lets the Octantis connect with Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, making it the largest passenger ship to ever transit the canal.
Viking is certainly raising the bar for sustainable travel and energy efficiency with an integrated bow system creating a longer waterline, engines with heat recovery systems and electric propulsion designed to minimise underwater pollution. That is good to hear as over 40 million people get their drinking water from the Great Lakes.
As a passenger, the ship is certainly quiet and you never hear that grinding of engines that you often can hear on other cruise ships.
Lectures, daily briefings, films and documentaries are held in the Aula. Named after the University of Oslo’s ceremonial hall, the former venue for the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, it has a retractable floor-to-ceiling projected screen and when open, a 270-degree view. The lectures offer more discussion and thinking around themes introduced during the cruise, and I feel I have gained so much more knowledge – not only about the Great Lakes but the global environment, climate changes and bird migration. The lectures are also streamed live directly to your stateroom on Viking Today Live.
I guess I always thought expedition ships lacked the finesse and luxury of ocean or river ships; however, there is no shortage of creature comforts on Viking Octantis . All six categories of staterooms and suites are spacious and have Nordic balconies with retractable windows that serve as in-room al fresco observation platforms; also each suite has a drying closet.
The Nordic spa – with saunas, a snow grotto, hydrotherapy pool and massage rooms, fitness centre, and heated indoor-outdoor swimming area with a retractable dome – also has a full-service beauty salon.
Jumping from snow grotto then into the hydrotherapy pool and then back to the Nordic spa, snow grotto and pool again made for a fun and ultimately relaxing few hours watching the Great Lakes slide past. You often forget you’re in a lake as the water mass is so vast it feels like you are on the ocean as there were times we couldn’t see land.
Our shore excursion to car-free Mackinac Island, which is sandwiched between Michigan’s Upper and Lower peninsulas in Lake Huron, included kayaking or horse-drawn carriage tours to the Grand Hotel. Built in 1887, it is hard to miss as this giant National Historical landmark, with the world’s supposed longest front veranda, looks out over the Straits of Mackinac, with the splendid Mackinac Bridge (the longest suspension bridge in the Western Hemisphere) in the distance. The small town is pretty and filled with fudge and bike hire shops dotted along the main street.
The beautiful wooden board houses stand proudly alongside each other and are sprinkled across the island in a range of hues and sizes with well-tended gardens, lawns and flower boxes, looking like something from a movie set. Patriotic owners have the Stars and Stripes flag fluttering in their front yards. The Richard & Jane Manoogian Mackinac Art Museum has local works including Native American art, maps and 19th-century photos. When I visited, the annual art competition was showing. The building itself is a perfect example of architecture from a bygone era, originally a Native American dormitory.
Fun on shore
We hired bikes and rode around the island; it was about 13 kilometres. We stopped along the way taking photos, visiting the Arch Rock formation and deciding the best beach spot for a swim. It is an easy ride and well worth doing, as at times it felt as though we were back riding alongside the Aegean Sea, with the colour of the clear water and the limestone rock formations.
Catching a tender back to the ship, we had a delicious open beef sandwich and a slice of the famous Success cake at Mamsen’s. Named after Ragnhild ‘Mamsen’ Hagen, the mother of Viking’s owner, everything is inspired by her traditional Norwegian kitchen, with heart-shaped waffles, open sandwiches and the popular Success cake all served on plateware designed originally from their family home. This authentic space is a haven after a long bike ride, and the family recipes that have been handed down are a wonderful generous inclusion and a must-visit experience.
I can’t decide if it was the Sushi Bar, with delicious kingfish sashimi, Manfredi’s Italian with its freshly made pasta, or The Restaurant with lobster and matching wine, that was my favourite onboard dining spot. Each morning breakfast at the World Café was a treat; some mornings I splurged, others I had a simple piece of freshly made brown toast and poached egg. The wonderful thing is the food offering onboard is so good with so many options, you are spoilt for choice.
Our next shore excursion was Parry Sound, which sits among Georgian Bay in Ontario, our first taste of Canada. A UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve and one of 19 in Canada, Georgian Bay includes one of the world’s largest freshwater archipelagos with over 30,000 islands stretching along the 200km lake shore.
The Octantis is most graceful early morning as the purply-red sun rises, gliding past these tiny rocky islands one after another, some islands with weatherboard houses, others with lighthouses, most with trees and not much room for anything else. For thousands of years Indigenous people gathered here at Parry Sound, where some of the Anishinabek descendants live here today.
In the late 19th century, the historic railway network connecting Canada’s towns and cities was established, and by the dawn of the 20th century ships filled with timber left Parry Sound daily, passenger steam ships ran several times a week and tons of fish were transported overnight by rail to markets in Montreal, Boston and New York. An epicentre for logging and shipping, the region had an important role during WWI and WWII as a manufacturer of explosives. For many years it has also been an artist’s haven with its towering cliffs and windswept landscapes bought to life by The Group of Seven, a group of painters from 1920 to 1933 and best known for their paintings inspired by the Canadian landscapes.
Over the years heavily trafficked waterways have left a negative environmental impact on the region and recent conservation effects have seen a rise in local sustainable initiatives. I spent the morning with the group from the Georgian Bay Mnidoo Gamii Biosphere, where the focus is on supporting this fragile ecosystem through education, research and monitoring. I saw native wildflower restoration projects and pollinator gardens, which also included a small apiary. The turtle conservation project sees rescued eggs being incubated before returning the turtles to the wild, a local initiative that has captured the support of the local community; the batch I saw will see over 3,000 turtles hatch. Viking is in discussion about co-ordinating ongoing research programs to support conservation and sustainability in the region by identifying opportunities for collaboration in the area with the Biosphere in Georgian Bay.
There were many moments on this cruise that made for great memories. I met lots of lovely people I know I will stay in contact with. I learnt so much about a part of the world I knew little about. I slept well, I walked, I relaxed and laughed over delicious meals and cocktails with new friends, discussing our days and future plans. The Octantis is truly a state-of-the-art ship, with refined luxury at its core, that I cannot recommend enough. The hospitality of the crew and that wonderful Scandinavian way of doing things makes me want to return and explore the world.
To discover more visit vikingcruises.com.