Two (Hundred) If By Sea: Crossing Lake Michigan on a Car Ferry

The Memorial Day holiday marks the official start of summer for many people, kicking off a season full of road trips for family vacations in far-off destinations. I recently took a bit of a driving tour myself, from the Detroit Bureau home office in Ann Arbor, Mich., to the annual Spring Rally of the Midwest Automotive Media Association at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wis. My ride for the voyage: the new 2013 Lincoln MKZ, Ford's great hope for trying to keep the struggling luxury brand relevant and appealing to young premium segment shoppers.

But instead of taking the meandering road route around Lake Michigan through Indiana, Chicago and Milwaukee and on to Elkhart Lake, I decided to try one of the two car ferries running from Michigan to Wisconsin, crossing the lake and shaving miles (but not necessarily hours) off my trip.

I chose the Lake Express, a twin-hulled catamaran car ferry running between Muskegon, Mich., and Milwaukee. The service started in 2004 with a new ship that could hold 46 cars, 12 motorcycles and 248 passengers; it makes the crossing in just 2.5 hours. The idea is to eliminate the need to head south through horribly congested Chicago, saving time, effort and frustration — but not necessarily money (more on that in a minute).

The Lake Express is the newer of the two ferries that make the crossing; the other is the SS Badger, a coal-fired steamship behemoth that's been plying the lake since 1953. Its route starts and ends farther north up the coasts, going from Ludington, Mich., to Manitowoc, Wis., just outside Sheboygan. The Badger is bigger than the Lake Express, able to ferry 600 passengers and 180 vehicles, including larger RVs and trailers. It also has 40 staterooms, a food buffet and a museum onboard, whereas the smaller Lake Express offers two classes of general seating and limited outside benches. The Badger is slower, however, taking four hours to make the 60-mile crossing, plus the extra time needed to load and unload the larger ship.

Arriving bright and early (Lake Express recommends 45 minutes before departure), I rolled up to the staging lanes on a sunny and cool May morning for a 10:15 a.m. start. The dock handlers pointed to where they wanted me to line up in my turbocharged Lincoln, where I then waited for the gleaming white ferry to arrive from its seriously early departure from Wisconsin. Upon arrival, each lane drives right up into the gaping maw of the vessel's bow and into the superstructure, where everyone parks and sets the parking brake before being required by law to exit the vehicle and head up to the passenger areas.

The Lake Express is a good-sized ship but it's half the length of the Badger. It's just 192 feet long and 57 feet wide, but it's powered by four MTU diesel engines making 3,000 horsepower each. They drive four independent Rolls-Royce Kamewa water jets, just like a personal watercraft, enabling the ship to reach a top speed of about 40 mph.

Despite the room for passengers and cars, the ferry was sparsely populated seeing as it was the Tuesday before the official Memorial Day kickoff to summer. Not quite two dozen cars and twice that many people were onboard, and my seat in the premium cabin was quiet and undisturbed. The seats are comfortable and tables with power outlets are provided, which allowed me to get some work done while making the voyage — something I'd be unable to do if I was driving down through Chicago. No Wi-Fi is available on board, but it's something the company is planning, according to the cabin steward.

If you've never seen the Great Lakes up close, "lake" may be something of a misnomer — these are vast freshwater inland seas with waves to match and deep, deep water that allows passage for massive thousand-foot-long ore freighters. Out in the middle of Lake Michigan, it's easy to think you're in the open ocean. Gentle 1-foot swells went barely noticed as the Lake Express powered west to Wisconsin, only the wind and the frothy plumes of jet spray behind us giving indication of our progress.

Arrival in Milwaukee was equally uneventful — the ship backs up to the pier, and everyone drives off single file. The overall experience was relaxing, simple and productive but not necessarily a cost savings. My one-way ticket cost just more than $200, half of which was my seat price and half was the cost to bring a car, plus fees and tax. The slower Badger is slightly less expensive — $148 for the one-way crossing, including a car. If you want a nap, a private stateroom will cost you an additional $49 each way. It's less expensive for children and seniors on both boats, and round- trip tickets are discounted as well.

Most of the other passengers seemed to be of retirement age, which makes some sense. As my own retired parents put it, these are the folks with the time and the money to spend on such a voyage, and the desire to avoid spending hours fighting maddening Chicago traffic. But with gasoline still hovering around $4 per gallon nationally, the cost to drive through Chicago does not even come close to the cost of the ferry, especially when taking a family. Still, for the privilege of not dealing with Chicago's ever-present traffic and the genuinely entertaining voyage, I'd gladly pay it again.

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