The mere thought of a six-hour road trip from Chicago to Traverse City with two teenagers is enough to send me into a nervous panic. My children are no longer satisfied with playing I-Spy. Now they want electronic toys and games, which aren’t cheap! When we started planning our trip to Michigan, I looked for any option possible to keep us out of the car for an extended amount of time. That’s when I found my savior—the S.S. Badger.
No delays. No construction. No traffic. Just smooth sailing (literally—this behemoth offers a steady ride from Ludington, Michigan to Wisconsin, even on a night when nearby storms churn the waters of Lake Michigan).
The Badger is the grande dame of lake travel. The ship started plying the waters of Lake Michigan in 1953 as a way to get railroad cars from one side of the lake to the other. The freighter no longer carries railroad cars, but it does carry cars, motorcycles, motorhomes and semitrailers, along with 600 passengers.
The first level of the Badger is reserved for vehicles and off limits, so be sure to bring everything you need before turning over the car keys to one of the courteous Badger drivers. The upper two floors are open to travelers and easy to navigate (the floor plans are posted at every turn).
The round-trip takes a bit longer than the car ride, but it’s worth it. There are plenty of entertainment options to ensure the four-hour trip flies by without a single “Are we there yet?” There’s a theater that plays family-friendly movies (go early if you want to snag one of the cushy seats), a playroom for little ones, an arcade for bigger ones, a quiet room for reading, an open space where you can join a game of Badger Bingo, and a reasonably-priced gift shop.
The coal-fired steam ship has changed little, but its food service recently received an upgrade. In addition to the packaged food sold on the second level, there is now a hot sandwich service on the afternoon sail. The $9.95 all-you-can-eat buffet served surprisingly good food, including a yummy blueberry cobbler for dessert.
The primo experience, though, is on deck. Get there early if you want one of the blue-and-white lounge chairs, perfect for whiling away the hours with a good book. Even on a cool evening sail, the deck chairs proved to be a popular option for guests who want to sleep without springing for one of the small cabins. But bring a blanket. It gets chilly in the middle of the lake.
Cindy Richards is a veteran journalist and travel writer who lives in Chicago with her husband and two terrific teens. She currently is editor and part-owner of TravelingMom.com, the survival guide for moms who travel with and without their kids.