Michigan’s oldest community, Sault Ste. Marie (pop. 14,144; pronounced “SOO-saynt-muh-REE”) was home to an Ojibwa community for hundreds of years before the first fur trappers and French Catholic colonists arrived in the late-17th century. Known historically for the tussles over the area between the French and British, and as the closest land link between the United States and Canada for hundreds of miles, “The Soo” is a great place to break a journey and catch up on the region’s complicated past, present, and future.

Beneath the steel-span International Bridge, which links this Michigan town with Ontario’s twin “Soo,” the raging torrents that impelled French priest Jacques Marquette to dub the newly established mission Le Sault de Sainte Marie, literally “falling waters of Saint Mary,” are no longer readily apparent.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers long ago corralled and tamed the rapids between 20-foot-higher Lake Superior and Lake Huron with four enormous locks, the largest and busiest in the world. During their 1920s mining heydays, the locks conveyed many times the tonnage of the Panama and Suez Canals combined—with no tolls paid. The locks area is worthy of at least an hour’s siesta; lush parks and a walkway line the locks, with observation points letting you get within a few feet of the massive lake freighters that pass through around the clock. If you want to “lock through” yourself, join a Soo Lock boat tour (800/432-6301 or 906/632-6301, $29).

A handful of nice cafés and restaurants line Water Street and Portage Avenue within a few blocks of the locks, including the see-it-to-believe-it Antlers Restaurant (804 E. Portage Ave., 906/253-1728), where the fresh whitefish and other food is almost as memorable as the taxidermy decor. At the east end of the waterfront, in warmer months Sault Ste. Marie offers a chance to experience a rare treat: car-hop food service at the classic Clyde’s DriveIn (1425 Riverside Dr., 906/632-2581). To stay the night, downtown is also where you’ll find another Great Lakes classic: the art deco Ramada Plaza Hotel Ojibway (240 Portage Ave., 906/632-4100, $139 and up).