Situated in the White Sea, 150km south of the Arctic Circle, the Solovetski Islands were first settled by monks in the 1430s. The archipelago has six large and nearly 100 smaller islands, some covered by tundra and others with a groundcover of blueberry and crowberry. They abound with lakes, wildflowers and nesting birds and, in summer, beluga whales gather to calve in the shallow waters.
On the largest island, surrounded by enormous stone walls, stands the legendary 16th Century Solovetski Monastery. It has a fascinating history and in the 20th Century was one of the most feared and infamous prison camps or gulags. Now that the monks have returned, you can visit the beautiful cathedral, church, refectory and other buildings enclosed by the great kremlin or fortification.
It’s an excellent place in summer for walking, both along the coast and on the many small paths that lead inland. In some places, using small boats and wooden rakes, men still collect seaweed to be made into local products. Your journey is by train from St Petersburg to Kem and then by boat across the White Sea.
In late winter the White Sea is frozen and the landscape is crisp and white. After a day in Moscow, travel by train to Archangel on the banks of the ice-bound Dvina River, through a snow-covered rolling landscape of farms and silver birch forest dotted with wooden churches and hamlets. From here you fly to the islands and explore by local transport and snow-shoe. There are many tracks through the woods leading to small lakes and the ice-bound coast and, if the conditions permit, you may be able to walk out on the ice to offshore islands and visit the monks in their isolated cells. Try your hand at fishing through the ice and spend evenings sitting around a wood fire after a Russian banya or steam bath. Snow shoes are provided and cross-country skiing at a leisurely pace is also available.
Fiona’s travel tipsRead: Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
Take with you: Dried fruit, nuts and chocolate to vary your diet.
Best time to go: June to September for summer adventures, January to March for winter activities.
Accommodation: Expect simple family-owned comfortable small hotels with delicious food.
Did you know: The Solovetski Islands boast over 170 architectural and archaeological monuments, including 33 mysterious stone labyrinths dating back around 3,000 years.
Don’t miss: The exquisite art and architecture of Moscow and St. Petersburg – it makes a memorable beginning or end to your Russian Arctic exploration.
“Everything was fantastic. So many bears, loads of volcanoes and spectacular views. Great company, good food, cannot fault a thing apart from a dodgy zip on the tent!”Paula Slater, Kamchatka
Sue Hynard, Arcturus Kamchatka group
“Wonderful, beyond expectations, well organised and always a Plan B if Plan A didn’t work out. Lorraine was a superb leader. Pre-departure information was thorough and clear.”
“Our local guide, Irina, was great – nothing seemed to be any trouble for her and she always seemed to have ideas about what we could do every day. We really enjoyed her company and felt that our days had good pace and rhythm about them. Irina was knowledgeable about the area and had obviously spent time developing good relationships with local people who took us about on boats and in trucks – we definitely benefited from this. We are keen birdwatchers and saw plenty including sea and great eagles, osprey and divers.”
Mr and Mrs James Nangle, Solovetskis and the White Sea
“It was truly unforgettable and, if anything, exceeded expectations. Thank you for a wonderful trip!
Chris Robb and Karen Murphy, Dog sledging with the reindeer herders and native people