By Wendy Wood-Prince
My youngest daughter, Ellie, headed off to Michigan State University (MSU) this fall (Go Green!), and we took three fabulous journeys for her to visit, attend orientation and finally move in, which introduced us to a variety of new ways to travel. MSU is located in East Lansing, just about in the middle of the palm of the “mitten” that is the shape of the state. It is a beautiful part of the state but getting to MSU from north of Chicago, where we live, is not easy. Technically, driving south through downtown Chicago, with its frequent beast of traffic, to the Skyway, is the shortest and most direct route. Most of the time, it’s at least an additional hour of sitting in traffic just to get through the city, leaving you a four hour drive once you break through the Indiana border. This changes the tone of the trip from a fun road trip to school, to frustrating irritation as the car inches along. Even worse than the “direct route” is swinging way around Chicago and past O’Hare – a mistake I have made twice and vowed never to make again. After a few of these arduous trips, my daughter and I looked at each other and agreed that there had to be a better way! Luckily, Ellie is always game for a new adventure, so we began to look at other options. A good friend mentioned taking a car ferry across the lake to Michigan, but I couldn’t find anyone that had actually done it. A Lake Forest Travel colleague of mine mentioned the Lake Express, and that’s where my research began. The Lake Express ferry is a car and passenger ferry that operates between Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Muskegon, Michigan during the spring, summer and fall months. The crossing takes just two and a half hours. Its maiden voyage occurred in 2004 and it was the first high speed auto and passenger ferry to operate in the United States.
When the time came for Ellie to start her freshman year, we loaded up the car, squeezed in every necessity from Bed Bath & Beyond (and then some) and headed north to Milwaukee with some trepidation regarding what we had signed up for. It was a beautiful, sparkling day when we arrived at the ferry terminal. We joined the short line of cars waiting in line to show our tickets and go through the short security check while we waited to board. The tickets are not cheap. A round trip passenger ticket in the classic cabin costs $153, while a vehicle round trip is a separate charge of $190, although students, seniors and the military and frequent riders receive discounts. I was a toad nervous when boarding started, as I had never driven a car onto a boat before and didn’t want to end up in the drink! The awesome crew was on top of the boarding situation, and their expert direction guided me within inches of the other vehicles. Once in place, we were directed to exit our vehicles and head up to the passenger cabins.
We found a couple of seats in the main cabin, threw our stuff down and then headed up on deck for departure. As Milwaukee faded in the distance behind us, the boat headed across the lake. The catamaran design of the ferry made for a fairly smooth ride and it was a calm day. On days when the lake gets too choppy, the ferry can be cancelled, but when it’s going to be rough, but not too rough for canceling, the company gives out free Dramamine and offers refunds for passengers not up for the rougher ride.
On board, there is a premier class cabin (with free Wi-Fi) and a classic cabin. The cabins are clean and there is a snack bar. Dogs are allowed but have to be taken out of vehicles and placed into dog crates in the hold with the cars. The main cabin features a movie for the crossing, although the feature playing was Lego Batman, and I can’t say I recommend it! Most passengers read, slept or worked as we made our way across the lake. Although it was a warm, sunny day, it was a bit too windy to stay on deck for the whole crossing. Most passengers did head out on deck as we slowed and entered the picturesque harbor upon arrival in Muskegon. Even though the ferry makes several crossings per day during the summer, people on shore and in other boats waved as we entered the harbor, which added a touch of excitement to our journey. Docking and disembarking in Muskegon proceeded as smoothly and orderly as loading up in Milwaukee. As fun and easy as the ferry was, the best part was the easy two hour drive through picturesque Michigan to East Lansing and MSU. Ellie and I both agreed that this was a fantastic way to get to and from school. For information and reservations, go to lake-express.com.
Unfortunately, the ferry is seasonal and does not operate during the winter months. When Ellie and I drove her car to school and I needed to head back, I tried the train as an alternate mode of transportation. Amtrak operates The Blue Water train between Port Huron and Chicago and has a stop right in East Lansing. The train ride from East Lansing to Chicago is hourslong and has free Wi-Fi, business class and a cafe car with table seating that serves sandwiches, pizzas and snacks as well as beverages.
The East Lansing station is newly built and very convenient to town, although it is not open at 8:45 am on Saturdays. So if you are on the early train like me, you must print your ticket out ahead of time! The ride is picturesque, relaxing and lets you look out the window at Battle Creek, Kalamazoo and other towns as you head towards Chicago. There is even a glimpse of the harbor in New Buffalo. It’s definitely more relaxing than the drive any day! Once the train arrives in Chicago, it’s just two short blocks to Ogilvie Station and the Metra, which stops at most major towns on the North Side of Chicago, including Lake Forest.
I would take the ferry or the train any day over driving when heading to Michigan. It can mean the difference between stress and frustration and truly enjoying the ride.
Get the Worldwide connection through Wendy at Lake Forest Travel Bureau’s lakeforesttravel.com.