Le Champlain cruise boat on the open water.

The world’s largest freshwater lake resides in Ontario, home to unspoiled wonders, treasures and vistas, sharing borders with three U.S. states

Guest blog by the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport

With the pandemic firmly in its wake, the worldwide expedition cruise industry is rebounding, with 2023 forecast to be its biggest year ever. And operators are looking for new and distinctive opportunities.

Stephen Burnett, executive director of The Great Lakes Cruise Association and long-time cruise enthusiast, maintains that the Lake Superior North Shore Inside Passage “offers an extraordinary, one-of-a-kind traveller’s experience.” The influential Seatrade Cruise Awards program agrees, naming it one of 2022’s three best expedition cruise destinations.

Cruise ship near the border with land in the distance.
With deep-water docking facilities, proximity to the U.S. border and an international airport, Thunder Bay is the ideal departure point for expedition cruise lines heading to the Inside Passage, as well as other Great Lakes routes.
Hiker leaning against a tree, looking out at a vista of the great lake from a higher elevation.
Wilderness trails with incredible lookouts stretch for more than 200 kilometres along the North Shore Inside Passage.

An eroding upright piano seen in the interior of a sunken ship.
The North Shore Inside Passage is a popular destination for divers, drawn by the shipwreck, Gunilda. The luxury yacht ran aground in 1911 and, thanks to the frigid waters of Lake Superior, remains perfectly preserved to this day.

To build on that exposure, in the fall of 2022, the association invited eight global expedition cruise lines and seven eagerly accepted, including Hurtigruten, Ritz-Carlton, Lindblad, Ponant, Scenic, Emerald and Viking, on a scouting trip of the North Shore Inside Passage. In 2024, 200 travellers aboard Ponant’s Le Champlain will be the first to cruise the whole of the Lake Superior North Shore Inside Passage.

“The cruise operators were amazed,” Burnett says.

It’s not hard to see why. Lake Superior is the world’s largest freshwater lake, and the North Shore Inside Passage is its crown jewel. It’s so unspoiled that an updated navigation plot was recently developed— the first of its kind on the waters in over 100 years.

Unique in the world, the Lake Superior North Shore Inside Passage is stunningly beautiful. Stretching from Thunder Bay in the west to Terrace Bay in the east, it features pristine waters surrounded by vast wilderness and dotted with islands, many teeming with wildlife. Exceptional hiking trails and kayaking routes offer jaw-dropping vistas. Among the sights passengers encounter along the route are Indigenous archaeological petroglyphs, an abandoned lighthouse, a sunken silver mine and the world’s most beautiful shipwreck, according to the 1980 Jacques Cousteau expedition.

And, come nightfall, the Aurora Borealis puts on a spectacular light show.

The Northern Lights show a green glow over the horizon.
Picturesque Northwestern Ontario

The tiny communities along the shore are populated by friendly, outgoing Northerners and offer local foods, including fresh fish in authentic diners and grill shacks, as well as quaint shops selling unique handcrafted items such as moccasins and jewellery.

To top it off, the Lake Superior North Shore Inside Passage has a storied history, from the Indigenous peoples who first populated the region to the voyageurs of the fur trade; from the railway workers, miners and loggers to the Group of Seven who drew artistic inspiration from its rugged beauty. Bringing that history to life are numerous unique museums and interpretive centres.

Exterior of the railway museum, complete with the front car of a Canadian Pacific train.
Visitors climb aboard the Schreiber Discovery and Railway Museum and walk through the history of the railway along the North Shore. Other interactive centres focus on Indigenous heritage, gold mining, marine history and a Second World War Prisoner of War Camp.

“It’s really an itinerary planner’s dream,” says Burnett, “which makes it one of the world’s great expedition cruise destinations.”

The Great Lakes Cruise Association has been working with local economic development organizations to ensure essential shoreline services are in place for travellers—things like dive and boating services, outfitters and interpretive guides. A significant result has been the creation of a new receptive tour operator that will provide shore excursions to visiting cruise clients.

The surrounding communities have also welcomed the investment. “Thunder Bay is enjoying the economic opportunities of the growing Great Lakes Cruise Shipping industry that becomes a catalyst for greater waterfront and community-wide investment,” says Paul Anthony Pepe, Manager of Tourism Thunder Bay. “In 2022, the reactivation of cruise activity generated over $3.2 million in local economic impact from vessel and passenger spend, and over $2.8 million in economic impact to local businesses through the capital enhancements made to our port facility infrastructure. Cruising also elevates our reputation as a destination of choice to a new global audience of potential travellers and investors through the millions of dollars of earned media cruising brings to the region.”

There’s no better time for tourism investors and cruise lines to take advantage of this extraordinary opportunity. Learn more about Ontario’s tourism industry.

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