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Great Loop Cruise Part II: America’s Heartland

This leg of The Great Loop cruise heads towards the Great Lakes.

October 21, 2020
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Chicago
Chicago looms large in Great Loop planning because the lowest bridge that can’t be avoided is here, with 19.1 feet of clearance. Unsplash/Austin Neil

For boaters who prefer to cruise in US waters, a Great Loop itinerary is ideal. After a first leg northward along the East Coast, the route turns inward toward the Great Lakes and American heartland.

“For people who are used to international cruising and looking for a US option right now, this is it,” says Kim Russo, executive director of the America’s Great Loop Cruisers’ Association.

Cruisers continuing along a Great Loop itinerary from the Erie Canal will go through Lake Erie, Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, in that order. These lakes are called great for a reason and require skippers with some boating experience. Lake Erie alone is home to more than 1,000 shipwrecks. Lake Huron, with 30,000 islands, has the most shoreline among all the Great Lakes, while Lake Michigan is so big that it touches four states: Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana and Michigan. When weather descends on bodies of water this big, yachtsmen need to know how to stay safe.

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And, of course, during the good cruising days, some of America’s best-known cities are here to be explored. Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee and Chicago can all be part of a Great Loop itinerary, along with visits to some of their top attractions: the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Henry Ford Museum, the Harley-Davidson Museum and Wrigley Field. (Go, Cubs, go!)

From Chicago, Loopers have a choice of how they want to cruise south to the Gulf of Mexico. The Illinois River is one option. Another is to join the mighty Mississippi farther to the north (the part that Mark Twain liked the best). And cruisers can take the

Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway all the way to Alabama. The ultimate destination on this leg is the Gulf of Mexico, putting the boat in position for a final leg back to Florida or the East Coast.

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Making the choices is part of the Great Loop fun. As Russo says, “People have really discovered there’s as many different ways to do this as there are types of boats.”

The Great Lakes

If the first leg of a Great Loop cruise includes the Erie Canal, then Lake Erie is the first of the Great Lakes on the second leg. The Lake Erie Islands are an area the locals call “Vacationland.” Put-In Bay on Lake Erie’s South Bass Island has beach attractions, wineries and pubs, hiking trails and more. Lake Huron will be next, with one possible stop being Mackinac Island. If you go ashore, you must go by foot, bicycle or horse-drawn carriage. Lake Michigan awaits after that, with a western shoreline that has cities to explore. The two biggest are Milwaukee and Chicago, with museums, sports teams and five-star restaurants.

Chicago

Boaters looking to head ashore for an authentic meal and cultural experience have many choices in Chicago. Paseo Boricua is a Puerto Rican enclave where restaurants serve pasteles (pork tamales) and arroz con gandules (rice, pigeon peas and pork). Greektown, as the name suggests, is the neighborhood to visit for dolmades (rice and ground beef in grape leaves), moussaka (kind of like eggplant and beef lasagna) and spanakopita (spinach and feta in phyllo dough). Little Italy serves up all kinds of pasta, bruschetta and gnocchi, while Chinatown is all about spicy rabbit, made-to-order dumplings and dim sum (served, of course, with tea).

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