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Destination Sault Ste. Marie: Top 7 things to do in the 'Soo'

Marie Havenga • Jul 2, 2017 at 2:00 PM

If you're looking for a summer getaway that offers water, fascinating maritime history, majestic views and an international twist, point your vehicle north to Sault Ste. Marie.

Hard to believe all this lies just 50 miles north of the Mackinaw Bridge.

We spent a weekend in “The Soo,” as it's affectionately known, overnighting in our motorhome at the acre-plus Kewadin Casino campground.

I call it “overnighting” instead of “camping” because the casino campground doesn't allow campfires, but what it does offer more than makes up for the lack of flame. Visitors have use of the casino's indoor swimming pool, hot tub and sauna, plus the on-site bath house, which offers modern facilities, showers and even free use of a newer-model washer and dryer, all for a $20-per-night camp fee — which includes RV electrical hookup.

We aren't gamblers, but made great use of the indoor swimming pool, hot tub and sauna.

Upon our arrival Friday evening, we made our first top the Soo Locks, the crown jewel of this freighter-fashioned town.

We lucked upon the Edwin H. Gott preparing to motor into the locks just as we arrived.

The 1,004-foot Great Lakes Fleet tied up for its 21-foot trip straight up from the St. Mary's River to Lake Superior water level, then motored along its merry way to pick up iron ore.

Admission is free to the Soo Locks, for both visitors and vessels.

There's so much to see and do in this quaint town. And being the oldest city in Michigan, it's more packed with history than the freighter loads that pass through its locks.

Sault Ste. Marie proudly promotes itself as “Where Michigan Was Born,” a testament to nearly 350 years of human history.

It's hard to pack in the full flavor of three centuries-plus into a weekend visit, but this quaint U.P. City does a great job of compressing and distilling the history and river-town atmosphere into several key visitor-friendly spots.

Here are seven you won't want to miss:

1. Soo Locks Boat Tours: You can see the Soo Locks from many different vantage points – the visitors' center, the International Bridge or the shoreline, but there's no better spot than from on a boat. And unless you bring your own vessel, your best option is a Soo Locks Boat Tour, which departs from two waterfront docks along the St. Mary's River throughout the summer. Not only do you get to see the locks, you get to experience riding through them, first 21-foot upward through the American Locks to the Lake Superior level, then back through the Canadian Locks on your return trip. Besides the amazing narrated history, you'll get a close-up view of freighters, the Canadian shoreline and more. Soo Locks Boat Tours offer sightseeing, luncheon, dinner or lighthouse cruises. Check their web site at www.soolocks.com for theme cruises throughout the summer. If you're traveling with pets, they offer pet kennels during your cruise for a $5 refundable fee.The kennels are padlocked and include water dishes.

2. Soo Locks and Visitors' Center: No trip to Sault Ste. Marie is complete without spending time on the outdoor platform watching freighters and other vessels “locking through.” As the ships tie up, a loudspeaker announces the length, beam, history and tonnage of the vessel. Be sure to spend some time inside the visitors' center reading about the history of the locks and the freighter mode of transportation. How many semi trucks does it take to haul what one freighter can? You'll find out here. Don't miss the film room. You'll get a true sense of what it took to construct the locks, dating back to the days of Native Americans. The inside information isn't all you'll want to soak up. Spend some time strolling the grounds, where gorgeous landscaping, flowers and fountains await you. You can even check out the water map that is inlaid into the concrete for a greater perspective of just where and how these ships make their way to the locks. You may want to keep strolling down Water Street to see some amazing historic homes of early settlers, including interpretive materials and seasonally, docents and tours.

3. Museum Ship Valley Camp: You're almost guaranteed to see freighters when you visit the Soo, but this stop gives you a chance to actually board one – and spend hours exploring 20,000 square feet of on board maritime history. This retired 550-foot-long Great Lakes freighter features more than 100 exhibits, including the actual lifeboats from the Edmund Fitzgerald, which met a watery grave in Lake Superior in 1975. For anyone who lived through that era, or knows the Gordon Lightfoot tribute song, it's a rare, up-close brush with real artifacts. It's haunting, almost, to see pieces of the lifeboats gouged away, imagining what crew members experienced during their last moments alive. Be sure to visit the pilot house, galley and sleeping quarters of the Valley Camp, and walk its expansive upper deck for great photo opportunities of the St. Mary's River and incoming freighters.

4. Tower of History: This 210-foot tower was completed in 1968 as a tribute to veterans. You can climb the stairs or take an elevator to the top for a breathtaking view of the surrounding Soo Locks and St. Mary's river region. This may be the best spot for photos in the area – you'll capture images of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan and Sault Ste. Marie, Canada, incoming freighters, the amazing architecture of the riverfront power plant built in 1902, marinas, and more.

5. Oh, Canada: Since you're only minutes away, why not make a run for the border? Just make sure you have your passport with you. We cruised across the International Bridge and stopped at the Canadian Welcome Center for restaurant recommendations in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. We hit a Canadian mall and Dollarama (a great Canadian dollar store) for some quick souvenirs. Just beware that unlike in the states, Canadian stores typically close about 5 or 6 p.m., even on weekends. Many stores are also on lock-down on Sundays. We picked up takeout food and ate in a spacious waterfront park along the St. Mary's River, watching the pleasure craft and freighters motor by. The scenery from the International Bridge is well worth the small toll you'll pay to cross it. Just remember to save some time to get through customs.

6. Scope out the city of Soo: Sault Ste. Marie's downtown is an eclectic mix of history and hip. You'll find decades-old souvenir shops along Portage Avenue near the waterfront and a more modern mixture of pubs, taverns and eateries throughout downtown. Locally-brewed beer, wine and other libations are such a hit here the downtown area is sometimes referred to as the “Barmuda Triangle.” We hit upon an amazing (and low-priced) Sunday morning breakfast buffet at Frank's Restaurant, an obviously popular place with the locals.

7. Take a chance: The Kewadin Casino is mere minutes from downtown. If rain thwarts your plans, or you want to get out of the heat, try your luck at the slot machines or table games. If you're looking for evening fun, check out the live show schedule or the crab leg buffet.

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