A Cruise Like None I Had Ever Heard Of

I don’t know why I began to receive email ads for Uncommon Journeys, a company that organizes train holidays, but the ads were short and colorful so I just read them and deleted. Then in April 2019, a different ad appeared from Uncommon Journeys: Great American Waterways, Chicago to New York, via the Great Lakes and a series of canals. This one began on our 65th wedding anniversary, June 27, and since we had been thinking of a big party to celebrate, we decided this cruise would be a whole lot more fun and interesting, so we changed our plans and signed on.

As we began to prepare for our journey, we learned that the actual operator of the cruise was Blount Small Ship Adventures, who sent us a packet of information about the ship, the schedule of stops along the way, and the optional excursions they had scheduled. We learned that on our ship, the Grande Caribe, beds would be made daily, bed linens would be changed mid-trip, towels changed daily as needed, and hotel amenities would be provided. There would be only one seating for each meal, and there was no assigned seating. Beer and wine would be provided for lunch and dinner, but, alas, those who wanted stronger drink would have to provide their own. However, storage space in the lounge would be provided for those BYO Bottles. What more did we need to know?

Uncommon Journeys also sent us a packet, so we learned that, in addition to Blount’s program, we should arrive one day ahead of time for an Uncommon Journey included night at a hotel in Chicago (the Hilton) and to meet our Uncommon Journey’s tour manager, Chris Tidwell, who would accompany us the whole way. We flew to Chicago on June 27, our anniversary, and that was Day One, I guess.

The next day, Chris took us by motor coach to lunch at Chicago’s Giordano’s  famous deep dish pizza (I still like thin crust better); then to buy our hard liquor at a store that was like a Costco of liquor stores,  with every brand you could imagine laid out in self-serve aisles; next a brief tour of Chicago; and finally to the Grand Caribe, docked at Burnham Harbor. Another Chris, the ship’s activities director, showed us to our cabin, 40B, teeny-tiny, smaller than the one on our Turkish sailboat, but with the shower in a separate compartment from the sink and toilet. Some cabins had all in one, with a curtain to drape around the shower. First night on the ship, with roast beef dinner, very good.

Day three, on our own in Chicago, we took a boat ride on Lake Superior to Navy Pier, the big amusement area, for lunch, then an architectural tour of the city by boat, and return to Grand Caribe by pedi-cab. Dinner was halibut “crusted,” according to my journal, but I didn’t note with what. The anchor was pulled up, and we were off!

Sunday June 30, docked at Manitowoc, WI, right next to the Wisconsin’s Maritime Museum. We toured the USS Cobia, one of twenty-eight submarines built in Manitowoc during World War II. The sub had been remodeled so we could climb in and out on stairways, not ladders, but otherwise we scrambled through water-tight doors and under low ceilings. The crew slept on bunks over the torpedoes, three men to each bunk sleeping in rotations, but the officers had tiny cabins. I already had a book to read on the boat, but I bought a second book, The Death of the Great Lakes, by Dan Egan, a book that turned out to be really frightening until the very end. Back on the boat, lunch was broccoli/cheddar soup, turkey cheese sandwiches, three-bean salad, potato chips and brownies. Breakfast had been a fruit buffet with cereals, milk and yogurt, and platters on the tables of waffles, bacon, and scones.

We soon learned the patterns for all our meals. Breakfast fruit buffet with platters on the table–some kind of egg dish–scrambled, omelet, poached, Benedict, French toast, waffles–with some kind of meat–bacon, ham, sausage– and something baked–muffins, scones,  sweet rolls. At breakfast, we signed up for our choices for dinner, so the chef would know how much to prepare, always a meat–beef, lamb, chicken–or a seafood or fish– all with appropriate sides and salads. Always a dessert, ice cream, different flavor every night, or a special prep–pie or cake. Lunch was always a soup–lobster bisque once–and a substantial sandwich, a hearty salad, potato chips and cookies. Beer and wine offered at lunch and dinner, coffee with every meal, soft drinks and cookies always available at two different spots on the boat. No wonder that Don and I each came home four pounds heavier.

On Monday, July one, we arrived at Mackinac Island (pronounced mackinaw). We left the boat for a tour by horse drawn wagon. There are only three automobiles on the island, an ambulance, a fire truck, and a police car, but there are lots and lots of vehicle pulled by horses. There is only one doctor but four veterinarians. We ended at the Grand Hotel, a wooden building in the style of old resorts, which boasts the longest porch-veranda in the country. The dining room was elegant, the Maitre-de told Don to remove his hat, but the buffet lunch did not have the great variety of Seattle’s Palisades brunch, and only six desserts. From the hotel we walked to the old fort, then back to the boat, arriving just before a big rain hit! Dinner was lamb ribs, a favorite of mine, and I didn’t have room for dessert. In the evening we had an entertainer, a singer in the style of Gordon Lightfoot.

Tuesday July 2 at sea on Lake Huron the whole foggy day. They tried to keep us from being bored. In the morning there was a workshop on cell phone photography, in the afternoon a lecture by the on-board historian (on the War of 1812 in Great Lakes territory, the USA verses British Canadians), and at night a movie. We discovered that in the middle of a lake there isn’t always cell phone service. Delicious flounder stuffed with crab for dinner

Of course I had books to fill up the hours. I finished a book I had started on the plane to Chicago, When General Grant Expelled the Jews, by Jonathan D. Sarna, about Grant’s notorious General Orders No. 11 expelling Jews “as a class” from his territory, orders which Lincoln revoked as soon as he learned of them. The book went on to cover anti-Semitism in the late nineteenth century, when Jews were not welcomed in many resorts and hotels. I thought about the Grand Hotel, where we had had the mediocre lunch. Don and I would not have been welcomed there at that time.

On July 3, at Wyandotte, MI, our nephew Dave Gendler drove down from his home in Ypsilanti to spend the day with us. Most of the guests opted for a tour of the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village, but we thought that would be too much to do so we decided to visit just Greenfield Village, Ford’s effort to preserve items of historical interest (to him!), especially those reflecting the American industrial revolution. So we skipped the authentic farm house and toured all of Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park labs and buildings, and watched a drama of the Wright brothers returning to their home to regale their sister with the report of the first flight. There was lots more to see, but the village was closing. We missed the last train (pulled by an old steam engine) that circled the site so we walked back to the entry, back to our car, and drove back to the boat. We should have stopped somewhere to have dinner with Dave, but I was anxious about missing the boat so we said good-bye (guests not welcomed for meals on board) and saw him off. A local folk singer entertained us in the evening. He told us he always concludes his programs with “God Bless America,” and everyone stood up.

Thursday July 4 we were in Cleveland surrounded by red, white, and blue decor all day. Lunch was a bar-be-que on the upper deck–hot dogs, hamburgers, potato salad, brownies, and lemonade, followed by a long (4 hour) bus tour of Cleveland–lots of churches, ethnic neighborhoods, historic buildings, universities. We got off the bus three times, the airport for a potty break (with an interesting display of women aviators), then an old building which is now a hotel, and finally the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, a big disappointment (pricey entrance fee not included and we weren’t there long enough to go inside). Back to our boat, another traditional holiday meal–bar-be-qued ribs, corn on the cob, baked potato, baked beans, cole slaw–very messy but delicious. I didn’t have room for the pecan pie. The boat had pulled away from the shore and we were out in the middle of Lake Erie, with fireworks coming at us from all direction until true dark, when the real fireworks began.

Buffalo was our next port, Friday, July 5, but we didn’t stay in the city long. We spent almost the entire day away from the boat on a special bus trip for just the Uncommon Journeys people, into Canada to Niagara Falls, where we got off and on and walked and walked. We saw the falls, of course, from several angles, and then to see the whirl pool, and then down the escarpment to the quaint little town of Niagara-on-the-Lake. Lunch was on our own, so we wen back to the Prince of Wales, elegant hotel where we had eaten with Judy on her big bicycle trip. Then we repeated our drive to Buffalo. My journal says, “Exhausting day, very hot and muggy.” Dinner was shrimp scampi and pistachio ice cream, and a movie that night, bio of Jackie Robinson.

Do I need to keep reporting the meals we had each night? I think it’s enough to let you know that the food was excellent and plentiful, and followed patterns that I already told you about.

Saturday when we woke up we were already in a lock, and we continued all day, July 6,  very slowly through the Welland Canal, which I had never heard of before this trip. It was one lock after another, lunch and dinner and finally entering Lake Ontario, below Niagara Falls. From Blount notes: “The Welland Canal connects Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, and is a key section of the St. Lawrence Seaway…” Group activity this evening was a game, passengers and crew together, but we didn’t feel like participating, so I can only report that others said it was a lot of fun.

A bus tour of Rochester ending at the Eastman Museum, with Eastman’s house included, took up the whole morning of Sunday, July 7. All kinds of photography, and an elegant period home. Very windy in the afternoon, rough seas as we crossed Lake Ontario, the boat was rolling from side to side until we finally entered Oswego’s calm water. A crew came on board to lower the pilot house, because we will go under some very low bridges in the next few days. The upper deck was now off limits and the pilot house filled the deck in front on the lounge, but we could still go out to the front of the boat–the “prow.” (The back of the boat, the “stern,” is where there were some stationary bicycles, and where the smokers could light up.) We had a wonderful show of fireworks that night off the stern; the local 4th of July show had been postponed. A much better show than Cleveland’s.

Even though we are avid walkers, we skipped the walking tour of Oswego to spend the morning at the Colonial Laundromat, clean clothes for the week ahead! From this port on, we were in canals and rivers and small lakes, low bridges and narrow locks, and greenery on both sides and close up, until we got to the Hudson River. We spent the night of July 8 at Sylvan Beach, a tiny town at the far end of Lake Oneida, part of the canal system. The historian tried to lecture today but he was repeatedly interrupted by the loud noise of the thrusters, positioning the boat in a lock. In the evening, a short film about the Erie Canal and then “The King’s Speech.” We had already seen this film, but enjoyed it again.

Most of the guests left the boat early in the morning of July 9 to get a bus to Coopersville for the Baseball Hall of Fame. We dropped them off at one lock near Sylvan Beach and picked them up at Amsterdam. We were on the Erie Canal most of the day. The Blount notes say, “Opened in October, 1825, the Erie Canal was built at a time when transporting bulk goods was limited to pack animals getting goods from New York City and Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes.” Our lecture that night was on the two iron-clad warships of the Civil War, the Minator and the Merrimac.

Our turn to be dropped off at one lock and picked up at another came the next day, Wednesday, July 10. From Amsterdam we drove a long way to Saratoga National Historic Park. A step-on guide took us around the park, re-telling the history of two armies who fought there, first the British, then the US, in 1777. When we got back to the boat, after another long ride, it was docked in Troy, N.Y., on the Hudson River, and the crew was putting the pilot house back up on the upper deck. In the evening we were entertained by a trio of elderly jazz musicians–one of them said he had driven down from Maine, just to play this gig.

From my journal: Under some of the bridges and through some of the locks the clearances were tiny. Some of the locks took us around dams (like a fish ladder), and often we had trains running along next to us. When we left Lake Ontario we went up over the rise of the Adirondack Mountains, but after a high point of only 400 feet above sea level we started going down. The historian commented that he knew us West Coasters don’t think much of New York’s mountains, but he pointed out that their mountains were much older than ours, and when they had first risen up above the earth’s crust they had been much bigger than they are now.

On Thursday, July 11, we were bused more than an hour to Hyde Park, N.Y., to visit Springwood, the home that had belonged first to the father of  Franklin D. Roosevelt, and then to Sara, his mother. After listening to the guide’s stories I came away thinking that she was a very controlling mother-in-law. This was also the site of the Roosevelt presidential library and visitors center. We spent most of our time in his home, which was very interesting, but I wish we had had more time in the museum. Back in Kingston, the Grande Caribe was docked right next to the Hudson River Maritime Museum, which had a big wooden tug boat parked on the lawn outside. This would have been a good visit for those who didn’t want to go to Hyde Park.

Another long bus ride on Friday, June 12, from the port of Newburgh, leaving the boat at 8:30 a.m., but the boat had left Kingston at 5. We were headed for West Point, the United States Military Academy, high up on Storm King Mountain, a campus of 25,000 acres, with miles of facilities of all kinds. As our guide explained, West Point is not only an undergraduate college but also a very rigorous and disciplined personal training program.  She taught us to answer the West Point way, saying “Yes, ma’am” and “Yes, sir.”  The daily schedules are very strict. Cadets must be involved in a team sport at all times, but there are 50 different sports to choose from, including sky diving. (Membership in a music band does not count as a sport–I asked.) As our bus drove away from the point, we saw the notorious statue of  the West Point mascot, an army mule. It faces away from the gate, and its tail is raised.

We continued down the Hudson River, past Yonkers, Tappan Zee Bridges, and finally the sky scrapers of Manhattan. The captain took us past our port, Pier 81, to cruise past the Statue of Liberty, and then back. With lots of boats big and small in the harbor, the water was very active, making it hard to stand up, but we stayed on the upper deck as long as we could. After dinner we took a long walk outside through the night life on the piers–a very happening ares.

Saturday, July 13, New York City, and the last day and night of our cruise. Uncommon Journeys gave us vouchers for a Hop On, Hop Off bus, but we didn’t hop off at all–there was too much to see and we couldn’t decide what to do so we stayed on for the uptown loop and then the downtown loop. We left the bus near Hudson Yard, a new development, a very posh vertical mall, had lunch there, then went for a walk on the High Line, a raised railroad line being converted to public spaces, like Le Viaduct in Paris, but so far not as nice. Back to the boat for the captain’s farewell cocktail party, followed by dinner–I know I said I wasn’t going to do this but lobster and prime rib? That night as we were packing, there was a massive power failure, all the lights in the city went out. Fortunately our boat had its own generator so we didn’t lose lights or a.c., but some of the guests who had the foresight to order theater tickets for Saturday night (why didn’t I think of that?) missed their shows and stumbled home in the dark.

Sunday, July 14 a cab to the Grand Central railroad station which was not very grand–after a long uncomfortable wait we took a very slow train to Kingston, Rhode Island, and then a Lyft to Newport. Never been to R.I. before, but after four days there, looking at grand houses, it’s now off my list of un-visited states. Only five left to see. Oklahoma, here I come.

I have waited a long time to post this account. It’s now early November. I had hoped to add photographs, but I don’t know how to do that and my helpers have failed me. So here’s my story. If the photos ever get attached, I’ll let you know.




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