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The Heartland’s Great Lakes

Courtesy Traverse City CVB

First-time visitors to the Great Lakes, whether lakes Erie, Superior or Michigan, are always surprised by the lakes’, well, greatness.

“People from California always say it looks like the ocean because they can’t see the other side,” said Joleen Haran, assistant director of tourism for Choose Chicago.

The lakes are also known as the Inland Seas, and cities on their coasts offer a host of lake-related activities, both onshore and on the water.

Oftentimes, the first stop for Chicago visitors is one that gives them the lay of the land — and the lake. Two observation decks, Skydeck Chicago and the John Hancock Observatory, provide a bird’s-eye view of the city and Lake Michigan. Skydeck is several blocks inland, whereas the Hancock observatory is practically on the shoreline, Haran said.

“Those both offer a great overview of the lake,” Haran said, “and it’s a very ‘great’ lake.”

Another popular group destination is Navy Pier, home to restaurants, shops, rides and the Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows. In Pier Park, a three-ride ticket gets visitors on the 150-foot Ferris wheel, invented for the 1893 Chicago’s World Fair; the swings; and the carousel, or any combination of the three, Haran said.

The pier is also a popular jumping-off spot for city tours, by water and by wheels. Most of the city’s boat tour companies leave from Navy Pier or from docks on the Chicago River at Michigan Avenue.

Entertainment Cruises offers lunch and dinner cruises, complete with music and dancing, on its Odyssey, Mystic Blue and Spirit of Chicago boats. Wendella Boats, Shoreline Sightseeing, Chicago Line Cruises and the Chicago Architecture Foundation on Chicago’s First Lady provide river cruises that highlight the architecture of the city’s famed skyline.

Seadog Cruises also offers an architecture tour, but the company is known more for its fun, fast and often guest-drenching thrill rides on its fleet of jet boats.

If visitors prefer to look at Lake Michigan rather than get on it, bike tours and Segway tours along the shoreline-hugging lakefront path are available. If visitors want to get in the water, Chicago has several popular beaches that are open from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

North Avenue Beach is home base for the annual Chicago Air and Water Show, held the third weekend of August each year. The show features aerial acrobatics and water stunts, and although the show is on Saturday and Sunday, groups enjoy watching performers practice Thursday and Friday, Haran said.

Traverse City, Michigan
Traverse City anchors the southern end of Lake Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay, which is split in half by Old Mission Peninsula. The unique geography gives the city plenty of access to water but protection from wind and waves.

Although kiteboarding caught on early in Traverse City, it’s not a very group-friendly sport, said Mike Norton, spokesman for the Traverse City Convention and Visitors Bureau. Stand-up paddleboarding, however, “is very group-friendly, and that’s huge here,” he said. Several places along the shore rent both paddleboards and kayaks to groups that want to get out onto the lake.

Day cruises are also popular ways to experience the bay, Norton said. The Tall Ship Manitou, a two-masted replica of an 1800s schooner, can carry up to 59 passengers, and Nauti-Cat Cruises can take up to 46 passengers on its commercial catamaran.

Taking the Manitou Island Transit ferry from the port of Leland, about 40 minutes north of Traverse City, is a fun day trip, Norton said. The ferry runs to both North Manitou Island and South Manitou Island. Although North Manitou Island is mostly wilderness, including the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, South Manitou Island is “more tour-friendly,” Norton said. There, groups can walk, take a jeep tour or explore the 1871 lighthouse.

From the dock, visitors can walk through the village and past the visitors center to a boardwalk that leads to the lighthouse. There, guests can tour the lighthouse and take the 117-step staircase to the observation deck at the top of the tower.

Back in Leland, an area known as Fishtown is a commercial fishing port that has preserved its old drying sheds and net sheds and converted them into restaurants and boutiques.

“It’s got this cute, funky vibe; you would think it was a theme park if it wasn’t all real,” he said.

Rachel Carter

Rachel Carter worked as a newspaper reporter for eight years and spent two years as an online news editor before launching her freelance career. She now writes for national meetings magazines and travel trade publications.