One of Russia’s best kept secrets, Solovetsky Islands in the White Sea are an oasis of fresh air for all of us looking for something different. Six isles and islets form an archipelago that separates the White Sea from the Onega Bay. The largest Bolshoi Solovetsky Island is home to an astonishing 15th century monastery, witness of a very turbulent history. It is the only inhabited island and the one with tourist infrastructure. Largely overlooked by tourists it’s not impossible to get there. Due to its harsh weather it can only be visited during summer.
A long 15 hour night train From Saint Petersburg took us to the small town of Kem (the train’s final destination is Murmansk). We bought tickets for the 2nd class sleeping compartment (with 4 beds). There are also sitting wagons, 3rd class open sleeping and 1st class wagons with 2 berth compartments. From Kem you can take a local bus or a cheap taxi to the even smaller town of Rabocheostrovsk from where boats leave to Bolshoi Solovetsky Island. On their website, a company called Prichal mentions two daily departures, but tickets should be bought in advance. Since we didn’t have them, we had to talk the boat driver to let us onboard. Once every passenger with a ticket got in, he let us directly into the crew’s compartment, when the boat departed, we were able to mingle with our fellow travelers, all Russians, who sang and played accordion through the voyage.
On the island we realized that the Solovetsky Monastery organizes at least three additional departures for pilgrims and tourists for the same price. A kind nun sold us our ticket back! The Bolshoi Island has a small airport with flights from Arkhangelsk 2 times a week, also in summer. Boats and planes arrive next to the Monastery surrounded to the north and south by Solovetsky village.
Bolshoi Island has a couple of hotels which can be booked online. We stayed at the fabulous Solovki Hotel, where we enjoyed outstanding hospitability in a superb location. The island itself is relatively large, but its infrastructure concentrates around the monastery. The village has a supermarket, bakery, and a couple of restaurants, bike rentals and souvenir shops. Our hotel had delicious food and even a decent internet connection.
How to get to Solovetsky Islands?
The best option is through a combination of Train and Boat since you can:
- Meet locals and see how they travel (it’s very authentic).
- Enjoy the outstanding landscapes both on land and sea.
- Save money, it’s much cheaper than the plane ticket plus you spend one night onboard.
- On your way back you can stop in Petrozavodsk and visit the magnificent Kizhi Island.
Staying on Bolshoi Island for a couple of days is an absolute must, there are plenty of things to see and do and there are quality tourist facilities.
Solovetsky Monastery is one of the largest citadels in Northern Russia. For centuries it was the centre of Christianization in the region. During the Stalinist era it was converted into a gulag prison camp. Although it was founded in the 15th century most of the existing structures are from the 16th century such as the massive city walls, Uspensky Cathedral, Preobrazhensky Cathedral and the Church of Annunciation.
Nature in Bolshoi Island is practically everywhere. The island’s outline is jagged with beaches and rocks all over the place. Most of the island is flat, but there are few low hills. It is almost entirely covered by forests with pine, spruce and birch trees. There are plenty of lakes and canals connecting them and much of the land is swampy. The best way of getting around is by bike, although it can be quite challenging (across the wetland and mud). The most beautiful landscapes are those on the coast, especially the one around the dam connecting it with Bolshaya Muksalma Island.
Our initial route through Russia did not include Solovetsky Islands because of its remote location. But as soon as we realized there are direct trains from Saint Petersburg and after few people strongly recommended it we decided to go. And what a great decision it proved to be! Until now it is our favorite place in all Russia. Nature there is outstanding, with lush forests, lakes and the endless sea melting with the blue northern sky. The monastery is under heavy reconstruction, but still imposingly beautiful and authentic. The village life is calm; locals are friendly and sunsets unforgettable. Getting there is a bit of an adventure, and that’s a good thing. Tourist masses have yet to discover it, so you will have the whole archipelago for yourself.