Right in the middle of the U.S., there are thousands of miles of beautiful coastline and hundreds of sailing destinations with quaint towns, striking mansions, friendly marinas and clear waters. Defined by small-town charm, the Great Lakes offer some of the best chartering destinations with small and friendly local populations. If you live in North America, you don’t have to book an international flight or learn a foreign language to charter a boat in paradise. And from anywhere else in the world, these Great Lakes are worth the trip.
There are thousands of miles of coastline between Canada and the United States along the shores of the five Great Lakes, from Duluth, Minnesota, on Lake Superior, to the Thousand Islands at the eastern end of Lake Ontario at the entrance of the St. Lawrence Seaway. The lakes are interconnected, at gradually reduced elevations as you work your way east. Along the way, one of the prime cruising grounds for yacht charters can be found in the North Channel and Georgian Bay on the Canadian side of Lake Huron.
On these five simply amazing bodies of water (six if you count Lake St. Claire, which is 24 by 26 miles), you can bareboat charter for a week or even a summer, and never visit the same anchorage twice. Due to the enormous distances, you don’t charter “in the Great Lakes” but in a small portion of one of the lakes. Here are four areas to explore—but keep in mind, there are dozens more.
Starting in the west, Wisconsin has an active boating culture especially on the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, which consists of 21 islands and nearly 70,000 acres. This boating sanctuary is on the northern tip of Wisconsin on Lake Superior and has lots of protected bays and pristine beaches with hundreds of scenic caves to explore by kayak.
The area has plentiful fish including salmon and lots of opportunities for wildlife sightings like white-tailed deer. If lighthouses are your passion, you’ll enjoy seeing eight historic towers on six islands. For shopping and restaurants, the town of La Pointe on Madeline Island should do nicely.
The area is known as one of the coldest in the U.S., so the season is short; in winter, your only option to get there may be via an ice road.
Next door, the state of Michigan has 3,000 miles of shoreline. Think about that. If you stretched Michigan out, it would reach from Los Angeles to New York with 500 miles to spare. No wonder it’s considered a boating destination with a plethora of harbors, lighthouses and beaches. Scuba divers can explore underwater shipwrecks and maritime heritage buffs will have no shortage of museums to enjoy. Because Michigan borders the lakes of Superior, Huron, Michigan, Erie and St. Claire, there are numerous boat charter options including bareboat, crewed, fishing and sailing school choices.
Travers City in northern Michigan was named by National Geographic as a top 10 summer destination, a claim supported by the 500,000 or so visitors the area receives annually. The city is known as the “Cherry Capital of the World” and many of the town’s 150 events center on that theme. Whether you’re up for a vigorous hike or a cold glass of white wine at a waterfront restaurant, you’re likely to find something ashore to fit your mood and budget.
Moving eastward, we come to Lake Erie and scenic Put-in Bay on South Bass Island, Ohio. The tiny island is only two miles by four miles. With the nickname “Key West of the North” the small but hopping town of fewer than 150 residents hosts two million visitors a year and produces fishing and historic events that draw crowds. Dock at one of the many public facilities and rent a bike to explore the numerous cottages and historic homes. Pick up a mooring in Put-in or head around the island to visit South Bass Island State Park.
On the extreme eastern end of Lake Ontario, you’ll find the region of 1000 Islands in the St. Lawrence River, with short sails between Canada and upstate New York. The communities on both sides of the border offer dozens of festivals, historic celebrations and events throughout the activity-packed summers. Brockville, Cornwall and Kingston on the Canadian side offer mansion visits, biking paths and dozens of scuba sites, while U.S. destinations like Alexandria Bay, Cape Vincent and Sackets Harbor provide quaint marinas, historic battlefields, and museums. This portion of the seaway stretches for approximately 50 miles but with all the places to visit, you could get lost for a summer. Navigation is tricky and the water can get shallow so extra caution is advised, and remember to bring your passport if you plan to travel across the U.S./Canada border.
Chartering in the Great Lakes is varied and at times challenging but most definitely worthwhile. Best of all, you can go back year after year and always find something new.