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Duluth's becoming a hot spot for luxury cruisers

The Clelia II luxury cruise ship departs from Duluth on Saturday through the ship canal. This is the first time the ship has been in Duluth, and it is expected to visit six more times this summer. (Clint Austin/Duluth News Tribune)1 / 2
Clelia II crew member Paige Davis adjusts the curtains in one of the penthouse suites. The cost of a seven-day voyage on the Clelia II is between $5,800 and $11,500 per person (Clint Austin/Duluth News Tribune)2 / 2

DULUTH - The luxury cruise ship Clelia II passed under the Aerial Lift Bridge at 5:37 a.m. Saturday, delivering 79 guests to Duluth. And it left that evening, with a fresh load of 68 passengers destined for Toronto.

"We may not realize it, but history was made here today," said Ron Johnson, the Duluth Seaway Port Authority's director of trade development.

It has been decades since Duluth could boast a regularly scheduled marine passenger service. But the Clelia II has changed all that by deciding to call on Duluth seven times this year. The 290-foot ship will offer a total of 14 one-way trips between Duluth and Toronto between now and September, with each voyage either starting or ending in the Twin Ports.

"Duluth has become Minnesota's favorite destination, and we believe it will become the Great Lakes' favorite destination for cruise ships, too," said Mayor Don Ness, hailing what he called the "rebirth" of cruising on the world's largest chain of freshwater lakes.

Although the Clelia II is designed to carry up to 100 passengers, the ship's captain, Sven Gartner, said that only a few cabins remained unclaimed on the inaugural voyage from Duluth to Toronto. He explained that the ship was fuller than the passenger headcount might suggest, because some guests were traveling solo and booked a private cabin for themselves. The vessel has 50 guest cabins in all.

"This season looks very good, so the company already has decided to come back next year," Gartner said.

Travel Dynamics, the New York-based cruise line which owns the Clelia II, is taking bookings for this year and the next.

The seven-day voyage costs between $5,800 and $11,500 per passenger, depending on accommodations. All food, drinks and tours are included in the price of passage.

Madelyn Carlin, Travel Dynamics' director of product development, described the ship's clientele as "a group of well-traveled and well-educated individuals." The company's tours all revolve around educational themes.

"We've traveled all over the world but we'd never really been to the Great Lakes before," said Nancy Long of Los Gatos, Calif. "Our idea of a lake was a place where you could see the other shore.

Her husband, Jon Long, described being impressed by the vast chain of lakes and said: "It satisfied my curiosity. We definitely learned a lot."

Other passengers also gave the cruise high marks.

"It was the best cuisine we've ever had on a ship," said Marjorie Grune of Honolulu, Hawaii. That's high praise, considering that she and her husband, Murray, have been on about a dozen cruise ship trips.

The Grunes, along with many other passengers, said their only wish in retrospect was that they had packed for cooler weather.

Jere Davis of Austin, Texas, said she actually welcomed a bit of respite from temperatures in excess of 100 degrees back home. The coldest weather Davis encountered on the trip was 43 degrees in Houghton, Mich.

"It was freezing but fabulous!" she quipped.

The Duluth Seaway Port Authority invested about $80,000 to prepare for the Clelia II's arrival. The money was used to install a new bollard for tying up the ship; to make modifications to the Great Lakes Aquarium, where passengers were taken to clear customs after arriving in Duluth from Thunder Bay; and to erect fencing that would secure the area where passengers disembarked the vessel.

While not cheap, Duluth's investment to accommodate cruise ships pales in comparison to other Great Lakes communities that have put up marine passenger terminals, such as Erie, Pa., where they spent $4.7 million on a facility.

Given the relatively small scale of cruising on the Great Lakes, Adolph Ojard, executive director of the Duluth Port Authority, said he couldn't justify any such similar project in Duluth.

As the tour commenced in Canada, ended in the U.S. and involved multiple stops on both sides of the border, it involved the vessel and its guests passing through customs repeatedly.

Jack LaVoy, executive director of the Great Lakes Aquarium, credited U.S. Customs officials for working to develop a cost-effective plan to process travelers re-entering the United States through Duluth.

"We both bent a little bit to meet each others' needs, and the result is bearing fruits today," he said.

Some passengers, such as Jere Davis, began their journeys home Saturday, flying out of Duluth International Airport.

But others chose to linger. The Grunes aim to spend a few days with their son, Dr. Martin Grune, who works for SMDC Health System.

And Jon Long looked forward to reuniting Saturday night in Duluth with a former Navy buddy from Cook with whom he had served in Vietnam. The two hadn't seen each other in 42 years.

"What better way is there to spend the Fourth?" he asked.