Lake Express enters ferry transport market

The sleek Lake Express is crossing Lake Michigan smoothly and more quickly than any other ferry in the lake’s history, but its debut has included procedural bumps.

The level of interest is high – so high that potential customers sometimes can’t leave a voice message. The mailbox has been full Sometimes there is no answer.

Some e-mails go unanswered; I’m still waiting for a response about how much it will cost to park my car while I’m away (parking at the dock is free).

It also has been a challenge to meet the vessel’s no-nonsense timetable, which allows a mere 30 minutes between docking and departure. My recent weekday afternoon sailing from Milwaukee began a half-hour late. I was back home in three days, about 90 minutes later than scheduled.

These all are growing pains, says Lake Express spokesman Jeff Fleming, and they are temporary. No schedule adjustments will be made at this time.

“We’re drilling the crew like a military unit,” he says, “and they’ve gotten it down to a turnaround of less than 25 minutes, after they hit the dock.”

The high-speed ferry, which crosses the lake in 2 1/2 hours, also had a minor oil leak on the day of my return trip, and was running on three of its four engines.

“Bet you didn’t notice,” Jeff said, and I truly hadn’t. The mechanical problem was resolved promptly.

Changes to the mooring system are being made, to increase the efficiency of unloading/loading people and vehicles. “These are important issues,” Jeff acknowledges, “because we’re selling speed” of transportation.

While waiting to go home, we passengers chatted about how – even with the delays – this sure beat the stress and endurance test of Chicago traffic jams. “We’ll get home late, but we won’t be all wound up and we’ll still like each other,” said a Beloit woman, nodding toward her husband. They were in Michigan for a family gathering.

A young woman from La Crosse had spent the weekend visiting her parents. A couple from Watertown was at a family wedding. A threesome from Muskego and Madison had merely been exploring Western Michigan.

The lightweight catamaran, which can go about 40 miles per hour, is trying to entice the business traveler as well as the tourist, providing a new way to bypass – as one writer called it – “the Straits of Chicago.” Seating in the slightly more plush business class, with Internet hook-up and work desks, is $120 roundtrip.

Other seats are $85 per adult, roundtrip, and less for children and senior citizens. To bring a vehicle, it’s another $118.

How does that compare to airfare? Midwest Airlines has nonstop flights of about 45 minutes to Muskegon and nearby Grand Rapids, which is Michigan’s second largest city. Rates can fluctuate quickly, but this week a ticket to Grand Rapids cost as little as $232 with just a two-day notice. A flight for two weeks from now surpassed $300, so go figure. Logic does not rule when comparing airfares.

Those are Midwest Airlines’ usual fares and not a quick response to the start-up of Lake Express, says airline spokeswoman Carol Skornicka. She says a simplified airfare structure is in place for these two Michigan cities, which means travelers are not penalized much – if at all – for traveling on short notice, or the lack of a Saturday overnight stay.

A more sophisticated phone answering system is being added at Lake Express, to prevent voice mail from exceeding capacity. Jeff says no run has been filled to capacity yet, but some Friday and Sunday bookings are getting close.

To learn more about the new carferry, go to www.lake-express.com or call (866) 914-1010.

How does the Lake Express compare to the SS Badger carferry that for 51 years has linked Manitowoc and Ludington, Mich.? The two vessels have extremely different personalities, and that is good.

Lake Express is new and compact, with a snack bar that has a high-quality but limited menu. A showing of “The Lion King” was the only planned diversion; hanging out on the vessel’s top-level observation deck was too windy and cold for most, at least during the first week of operation.

When I rode the SS Badger two years ago, there were bingo games, trivia contests, a hostess who sang, a hot buffet, a gift shop, a small movie theater, sleeping rooms, games for children. It was a rocky ride, but I haven’t been on the Lake Express on a cold and rainy fall day – so let’s not compare that.

It’s a four-hour ride, and summer fares $78 roundtrip, less for children and senior citizens, plus $98 for the average vehicle). Return within 48 hours, without a vehicle, and the rate is $58.

For more, go to www.ssbadger.com or call (888) 337-7948.

If you have the time, consider doing a loop that involves both watercraft and all four cities. There is plenty to see and do on both sides of the lake, and we’ll get you better acquainted with Western Michigan during the next two weeks.

Last, here’s an update about the big shindig that’s taking place on the other side of Wisconsin. Grand Excursion 2004, June 25 to July 4, will move historic paddlewheelers and dozens of other watercraft from the Quad Cities in Illinois and Iowa, to the Twin Cities in Minnesota.

It is one huge party on the Upper Mississippi River that involves the participation of more than 50 communities. Small-town festivals, historic re-enactments, hot air balloon rides – you name it – will be a part of the celebration.

Event spokeswoman Jean Freidl says some of the day cruises – Dubuque to Prairie du Chien, Prairie du Chien to La Crosse, Pepin/Prescott to the Twin Cities – already are sold out. Shorter rides, be it for brunch or to admire the moonlight, remain available in all locations.

The 1854 Grand Excursion celebrated the first railroad connection to the Upper Mississippi, so there also will be passenger train rides between cities. The hottest link is Dubuque to La Crosse, for which only coach seats remain.

A bike ride also will coincide with the event; more than 250 people have registered. Participants can ride up to 400 miles, following the river’s flotilla 35 to 70 miles per day.

For more about fees, options and times for any of these events, go to www.grandexcursion.com or call (866) 439-2004.