Sault Ste. Marie is known for its excellent fishing, its place in the hearts of the Group of Seven painters, and as the birthplace of astronaut Roberta Bondar, but have you considered it as a family vacation destination?
Here are my picks for what to do and where to eat and stay for a fantastic vacation. Consider it your personal family guide to Sault Ste. Marie!
The lock that allows recreational watercraft to pass along the St Mary’s River that flows between Lake Superior and Lake Huron is a National Historic Site, and even if you don’t consider yourself an engineering geek, you will likely find the whole thing pretty fascinating. The first electrically powered lock in the world started operating in 1895. Now, it is an interesting spot to watch the boats being raised and lowered—or ride it your self on a Soo Locks Boat Tour from the American side.
Parks Canada interpreters are on hand to give you a tour of the lock operations and history of the site. If you are visiting on a weekend afternoon, you will want to stop for high tea (featuring a unique blend of English Breakfast and rose tea) with locally crafted sandwiches and dainties. The historic Superintendent’s Residence is currently getting a facelift and will be hosting the teas on the porch again shortly, for now, the teas are served under a canopy on the grounds.
While you are on the grounds of the lock, cross the footbridge onto St. Mary’s Island, then another path onto Whitefish Island, which is land that has been returned to the Batchewana First Nation. Both the islands feature trails to explore, giving you the feeling of being far away from the city. If you are feeling adventurous, (and you have kids with legs long enough for an adult-sized bike) you can rent fat bikes from the Canal Visitors’ Centre.
Plan to spend an hour (or a few) learning about–and climbing on–the bush planes that are so integral to sustaining life in Canada’s isolated North. The centre is on the waterfront in a warehouse that was once the home to the Ontario Provincial Air Service. In addition to 30 display planes, the museum houses an interactive children’s area that is also fun for the adults, and a flight simulator to give you the experience of landing on the water in a floatplane.
Got a train-obsessed kid? You will want to check out the Agawa Canyon Train Tour. Get up early and ride the rails to the Agawa Canyon. An onboard canteen keeps snacks on steady supply, and trips to the dining car are a pleasant diversion. Along the way, pass stunning scenery on the rocky Canadian Shield. If you are a fan of the Group of Seven, you’ll probably recognise some of the sights as you chug past. After about 3 hours on the train, you’ll have time to stroll through the Agawa Canyon. If the kids have some ants in their pants and need to get moving, head up the long stairway for a view of the park, or take a more leisurely stroll to the waterfalls on either side of the track.
Hiking through Lake Superior Provincial Park is a great activity on its own, made all the more special by a visit to the pictographs painted on the lakeshore rocks. Trekking out to the pictographs, which are painted depictions of dreams and visions of the Anishinaabe people, is no easy feat and is best for families with older kids (tweens and teens.) The narrow, slippery footpath is only accessible when Lake Superior is very calm. Even if you have youngsters or a blustery day that precludes seeing the pictographs, a visit to the park is well worth the drive—about 135 km from the city of Sault Ste Marie.
The Breakfast Pig is one of the most popular breakfast and brunch places in town. Locally sourced ingredients, including pigs raised at Sunnynook Farms. Hopefully, you have a family who is into sharing, because narrowing down the choices to just one is very, very difficult. Breakfast poutine anyone?
Quebecois flavours and Metis flair are on the menu at the Voyageurs’ Lodge and Cookhouse. Indulge in tourtiere, poutine, and local fish dishes in the log cabin dining room. The Voyageurs’ is about 45 minutes north of the city on Batchawana Bay, making it a convenient stop on the way to Agawa Rock. But trust me, the apple fritters that are roughly the size of a toddler’s head are worth the drive on their own
Italians have settled in the Sault Ste. Marie region for over 100 years and the local restaurant scene is one of the beneficiaries of the rich cultural heritage. Walking distance from the river, the downtown Solo Trattoria is an excellent choice for comfort food, Italian style.
The Delta Hotel Waterfront has an excellent location on (as the name implies) the waterfront. Its place on the boardwalk makes it perfect as a home base for riverside strolls, either to the lock or the park trails outside City Hall and the Art Gallery of Algoma. There is a small pool to splash around in, and the patio at Fluid offers great views of the St. Mary’s River and Michigan on the other side as well as yummy food and fun cocktails.