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The Heartland’s Great Lakes

Courtesy Visit Duluth

Duluth, Minnesota
Duluth sits on the far western edge of Lake Superior, where the St. Louis River meets the lake, and Canal Park is the hub of the city’s lake-related activities.

Canal Park was once a rundown warehouse district, but the revitalized neighborhood is now home to restaurants, boutiques and a brewery. It’s also central to the Lake Superior Maritime Visitor Center, the S.S. William A. Irvin Ore Boat Museum and the Great Lakes Aquarium, all within a couple of blocks of each other.

“It’s probably the easiest for some groups to do because everything is right there,” said Mary Nelson, director of packaged travel for Visit Duluth.

The Lake Superior Maritime Visitor Center is a free museum run by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Exhibits focus on Lake Superior’s history, including the iron ore business and the Soo Locks system that allows ships to travel to the lower Great Lakes.

Because the center overlooks the harbor entrance, crowds gather to watch ships enter the harbor and pass beneath the aerial lift bridge. The museum even offers a mobile app so visitors can track vessels as they come and go.

A couple of blocks from the visitors center is the S.S. William A. Irvin Ore Boat Museum. As the flagship of U.S. Steel’s Great Lakes fleet, the 1937 ship carried iron ore and coal, as well as dignitaries and passengers, for more than 40 years. Today, guests can tour the permanently docked ship, see the engine room and elegant staterooms, and even go on the top deck “and act like you’re out to sea,” Nelson said.

Canal Park is also a midpoint on the four-mile Duluth Lakewalk, the city’s paved biking and walking path that follows the edge of Lake Superior and fronts downtown Duluth. Lakewalk is a popular spot for bicyclists, pedicabs and Segway tours. Along the way, visitors can enjoy the Waterfront Sculpture Park that features works from local artists, as well as artists from Russia, Japan and Sweden.

Cleveland, Ohio

Cruises are probably the most popular way to experience Lake Erie’s shoreline and Cleveland’s skyline, said Jackie Spencer, communications coordinator for Positively Cleveland. The Goodtime III and the Nautica Queen offer narrated tours and lunch, dinner and dance cruises on Lake Erie and the Cuyahoga River, and both have observation decks and enclosed areas, in case the weather whips up.

“At night, when you’re going under the bridges, and the downtown is lit up, it’s really beautiful and really great to get photos of the skyline,” she said.

Two ferries provide easy day trips for groups to visit Kelleys Island or Put-in-Bay. Miller Ferry and Jet Express both depart from Cleveland and take passengers to Kelleys Island, where they can enjoy fishing, explore the village or check out massive glacial grooves, or to Put-in-Bay to visit historical sites, Perry’s Cave and Crystal Cave.

“It’s also really doable to leave early in the morning, take the ferry over to Kelleys Island and Put-in-Bay and take the ferry back at night,” Spencer said.

Back in Cleveland, two historic ships are open to visitors: the Steamship William G. Mather freighter and the USS Cod submarine.

From May through October, groups can tour the Mather, a 618-foot restored freighter that was Cleveland Cliffs Steamship Company’s flagship. Today, the 1925 ship is permanently docked as part of the Great Lakes Science Center, and visitors can see the ornate pilothouse, elegant guest quarters, massive cargo holds, four-story engine room and maybe even some ghosts.

“They have stories about it being haunted,” Spencer said.

Historic-ship buffs may also enjoy a stop at the USS Cod, a World War II Gato-class submarine anchored in downtown Cleveland that is operated as a naval memorial. Tours of the Cod, available May through September, are a bit more demanding because visitors must use ladders and hatches to get around inside.

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.