The St. Olav Waterway is an old pilgrim path, leading all the way from Turku to Norway. The Finnish part of the trail was officially opened to pilgrims just last May, and I’ve been intrigued by it ever since. Stretching all the way from Finland’s former Capital out to the Western Archipelago, while being a fairly easy trek, sounded like it was made for me. I love being out on the islands, and this summer was one of the only ones where I didn’t manage to get out there. Two years ago I cycled the archipelago trail, so hiking parts of it was high on my list. As it so happens, summer passed, but the idea stuck, and sometimes things just fall into place – so my dear friend Rania from Northbound Journeys and I set out on the trail at the end of September.
Prep & Resources
The St. Olav Waterway trail is well marked, thought through and provides great resources for those who are interested. The good thing about this trail is that it offers hikers of all abilities the chance to experience it. It’s possible to hike the entire trail, but those who want to travel light and easy it’s also no problem to skip longer distances by bus or take a shortcut by boat, and to stay overnight in lovely accommodation like B&Bs instead of camping outdoors, which also makes it possible to hike this trail out of the peak season, like we did. It’s recommended to plan thoroughly, especially if you plan to reach a certain destination or accommodation at the end of your day. The ferries (work as an extension to the road, in most parts – the yellow ones are always free of charge) go regularly, but busses often only go every couple of hours, so missing one can mess things up.
At least throughout the Finnish part of the trail that we hiked, you’re never far from civilisation, so stocking up on snacks for the road or anything else you’d need is always possible.
We opted to do all those things: we wanted to see the most beautiful parts in the short time we had available, and also travel without heavy weight and with too much gear.
The website summarises all information you might possibly need very well, from accommodation and maps to timetables for buses and ferries, and it’s always possible to get in touch with any planning questions. We got plenty and I’m so happy about that!
What to bring with you
Check out my Outdoor Favourites post here! It’s not a gear review, but it’s a summary of all the things I like to wear or bring on any venture into the great outdoors. From must-haves like my Kupilka cup, to my favourite hiking pants, what materials I love and what makes any hike more enjoyable – is there.
Where to stay
During the summer months, it is easily possible to travel with your tent and all that comes with it, and make use of the wonderful Everyman’s Right that we have in Finland, which allows you to sleep the night pretty much anywhere in nature. If you like to stay comfortable, cosy and prefer real beds, there are plenty of delightful options along the way. Plan your trip according to the accommodation, and while you can find more options around the bigger towns, keep an eye out for hidden away gems further in the countryside as well. See more about the places we stayed it below in my Travelogue!
Getting there & starting the hike
The trail starts from the Turku Cathedral, which is easy to reach by train or bus from Helsinki, or by boat from Stockholm. Hikers from Helsinki can easily take a morning train like I did, and still start the day early. Get your Pilgrim Pass and the first stamp in the cathedral and you’re good to go! It’s such a lovely tradition that has been kept alive – even though they serve more as documentation and souvenirs nowadays. The stamps can be collected in most points of interest along the way, traditionally at churches, but we also got a bunch from cafés or accommodation on the route.
The trail is marked with little St. Olav emblems on stickers or signs along the way. Once you know what to look out for you’ll see them everywhere, but especially in the beginning while you’re still in the buzzing city they can be a bit hard to spot. During our days on the hike, we only got “lost” once, as we confidently took a left turn instead of a right. It ended up being a good 3km detour, but it ended up with a lovely shortcut which was absolutely beautiful. Good maps and perhaps a compass even if you’re adventurous, are good to keep with you. We also used our offline maps on the phone quite a bit to verify our location, which I do recommend.
Travelogue of our Hike
DAY 1 / 18km
We met at the Railway Station in Turku, walked to the Cathedral where we got all set up and ready to go with our Pilgrim Passes and all, and started our hike from there. The first day was going to be an 18km hike out of the city of Turku, down to the town of Kaarina. From there we took a bus to Parainen, which would be our destination for the night.
Once out of Turku, the path lead through a beautiful forest, that really made it feel like a proper hike now! We were very lucky with the weather, so we thoroughly enjoyed the last warmth of the sun, and time passed really quickly. We accidentally did a detour of about 3km, which was mildly annoying at first but eventually lead us to take a shortcut through the most beautiful woods until we reached the bus stop.
Parainen is a cute little town, but very sleepy in the off-season. I had been here several times before, but not in the autumn, which definitely had some different vibes going on. There are some oddities to be found here, such as a large private collection of Salvador Dali pieces in the ArtBank museum.
The lovely little B&B @Eva, with the restaurant Matmalmen in the same building, is the definition of archipelago cosiness. The rooms in the wooden house are just too inviting for a cuddly night, you can have a sauna before bed to ensure a deep sleep, and have a delicious meal. The concept of the place is to avoid any food waste – so the menu is always a surprise.
DAY 2 / 18km
I was fighting a pretty rough cold at all times of our hike, so we decided to go for a slow Sunday morning to get me some more rest, and start energised after brunch at our accommodation. This hike we started with a bus ride, and the first ferry ride! I couldn’t stop smiling – this is what I love the archipelago for! The bright yellow ferries and the views out to the sea give me such a warm feeling of happiness and is one of the reasons I always come back. The road continued through the sheer perfect Finnish countryside, that always brings me childhood memories of the stories told about these kinds of places.
We had the nicest break on a rock overlooking a small lake, found wild camomille fields and met cow gangs. Hiking with a good friend is such a peaceful experience, and it’s a wonderful way to connect with yourself and with nature. Since we left only in the afternoon and the flu was taking its toll on me, we decided not to take the scenic route to our accommodation, but take it a bit shorter. We passed through Nagu, only to find the church closed so we didn’t end up getting our stamp – and continued hiking through to the Grännäs B&B at the other side of the town – the way takes you through the most beautiful oak alley.
The B&B and Hotel Stallbacken are in a dreamy location of the archipelago, with a private beach. The accommodation is quite large, and has a big restaurant as well.
DAY 3 / 10ish km
I love the archipelago because I am the happiest by the sea, and I’m probably even happier on the water – so I was so happy to start the day with a boat ride! Grännäs owner Mikael offers this boat-transfer to all pilgrims who are interested in experiencing the archipelago from the sea as well – and I’m glad we got to go. It’s magical to see the islands, the lovely summer houses and to feel the fresh air around your nose. It was grey and gloomy, but luckily it didn’t rain! A good 20 minutes later, we continued on the trail by foot.
The weather kept on our side though, and we had another lovely, chilled walk through the countryside, and the most beautiful autumn foliage. We even found some last blueberries, even though the season for those was pretty much over. Everything was full of lingonberries though, and the forests were also absolutely full of mushrooms, which was amazing. And: Rania saved a baby snake from the street!
Since the flu was still going strong, we decided to walk pretty much straight to our accommodation for the night, which came so highly praised. The last bit of the trail was pretty much only on the side of the road, and walking on asphalt for a longer time is really uncomfortable. We both felt it in our knees (I still feel it a week later!), and we were so happy when we arrived at our destination. And we were so surprised.
What used to be his grandparents home, has inspired William Hellgren and his family to create an absolutely enchanting get-away in the archipelago – that is Hotel Nestor. The barn has been transformed into a cozy hotel with a bunch of rooms, that are both spacious, and minimalistic yet intimate at the same time. The downstairs space is used to display the work of local artists, while you can enjoy absolutely beautiful meals from Restaurant Backpocket, which was added to the premises a little later. It was a pleasure to see what the younger generation is up to in the area, and how people come back from city life to return to their roots. The area does have possibilities, it just needs people to grasp them. I can only recommend this place, and I am already looking forward to coming back next year – maybe in the summertime.
Anyhow – I was not allowed to enjoy the massage that was offered because of my silly cold, so I went to take a nap while Rania got a relaxing post-hike treatment. Before dinner, we walked to the beach area and found an amazing lookout spot, that again showed me why this is truly my favourite part of this country.
Dinner, however. Let me tell you when they say “simple”, it’s not referring to the taste. Influenced by the region, the seasons and the vibes of his surroundings, William created a menu for us that exceeded every expectation we could possibly have had. We started with a smooth squash soup, with chanterelles and chicken, which was followed by a stew as the main which is probably one of my favourite meals to remember, served with delicious cabbage. I’m still dreaming of this meal.
During the night we heard the wind howl and the rain slashed against the windows, but inside everything still felt calm and warm. I was still not feeling significantly better, and our legs were sore from the asphalt, and with the weather not on our side this morning either, we decided to head back to Nagu right away after breakfast. The bus schedule, unfortunately, didn’t allow us to spend a slow morning at Hotel Nestor which we both would have loved. Having another cup of coffee and going for another walk to the water would have been amazing. But the busses left either right away after breakfast or after lunchtime, so sadly we had to head out too soon.
Despite the circumstances of my health, we both thoroughly enjoyed our time together on the trail! It was the perfect autumn getaway, in the most beautiful time of year in Finland. The trail is straightforward to plan and hike, you can really focus on experiencing the best sides of it, all while staying in cosy archipelago places, eat delicious meals and get pampered. Thank you, Rania, for the wonderful company, and thank you, James, from the St. Olav Waterway for making this trip possible! We will be back!
We spent another couple of days in a magical seaside villa near Nagu, so stay tuned for a post on that!