A steamboat ride
on Finland's largest lake

A steamboat ride
on Finland's largest lake

A steamboat ride
on Finland's largest lake

A charming steamboat ride on the pristine waters of Lake Saimaa is the ideal prelude to a night at the world-famous Savonlinna Opera Festival.


Text and photos by Hernan Patiño.

The city of Savonlinna in Eastern Finland is best known for its world-famous Opera Festival hosted in St Olaf’s medieval castle every July. An equally cherished part of the city’s heritage, however, is the fleet of magnificent old-time steamboats that have dotted the scenery of Lake Saimaa for over a hundred years.

At the turn of the century, Savonlinna was a busy hub of commerce and tourism, most of its traffic being by water. In the 1920s, between 50 and 150 passenger steamboats plied the Saimaa Lake region. By the 1960s, Savonlinna’s passenger harbour was one of the busiest in the Northern hemisphere, with the steamboat industry gearing increasingly towards tourism.

Today there are four of these old steamers still in operation. The S/S Punkaharju weaves a picturesque 1.5-hour route from Savonlinna to Punkaharju on weekdays, as well as shorter cruises on the weekends.

The captain Janne Leinonen makes a point of greeting each passenger cheerfully: “Welcome on board!”

Once, twice, three times the whistle blows and off we set into the sunny waters of Lake Saimaa. My daughter Sofía and I make our way through cosy-looking saloons and climb upstairs to the main deck. There are roughly 15 passengers aboard: families, couples, solo travellers. An impressive lake panorama opens up as we make our way to the stern.

Captain Janne Leinonen jovially greets passengers.

Seal surprises

Measuring 4,400 square km in area and with over 13,000 islands, Saimaa is Finland’s largest lake and the fourth largest in Europe. Last year the Wall Street Journal listed it among the five most beautiful lakes in the world.

As more islands and inlets begin to appear, the captain tells us to keep our eyes peeled for the mascot of Lake Saimaa, the rare freshwater Saimaa ringed seal. They’re not easy to spot, but Leinonen reportedly caught a glimpse of one just two days ago.

“You need the right water conditions, as we have today: dead calm waters which we locals call ‘rasvatyyni’, which literally means ‘as still as grease’.”

Sure enough, 20 minutes later our captain’s well-trained eye spots a seal directly 50 metres ahead. From afar it looks like a dark, symmetrical stone protruding from the water, but sure enough it really is a seal. Three or four seconds later it vanishes with a splash.

A family enjoying the breathtaking scenery on the upper deck.

VIP passengers

Built in 1905, the S/S Punkaharju is still in fine working order and could go for another hundred years, says Leinonen.

Its superb condition was noted by the German President Joachim Gauck, who took a steamboat ride in the summer of 2013 with Finland’s President Sauli Niinistö.

“Gauck told me that his father had been a captain as well and that he was impressed by how well these steamboats were kept and how beautiful Lake Saimaa was,” says Leinonen.

He eagerly adds that Finland’s former president Tarja Halonen has also been on the ship many times, along with other heads of state and opera stars.

As the steamer turns back towards Savonlinna, St Olaf’s Castle towers right above us, basking in full splendour in the golden afternoon light, setting off a chorus of camera clicks. Half an hour later, we’re back at the harbour.

We return to our small but cosy quarters aboard another steamboat, the S/S Savonlinna, which is temporarily anchored in the harbour waiting for a larger group. From our cabin we watch the sun as it adamantly refuses to set, bathing the whole of Savonlinna harbour in its gentle glow well into the wee hours.

Sofía waits her turn at trying the helm while captain Ari Mikkonen checks the course.

All steamed up

Most of Finland’s historic steamboats were built in Varkaus for exclusive use in the Saimaa region. Four of them still survive in Savonlinna: the S/S Savonlinna, S/S Paul Wahl, S/S Heinävesi and S/S Punkaharju.

The S/S Savonlinna is a museum ship that can be rented by groups of 15 to 25 people to explore Lake Saimaa on an overnight cruise. Similar steamers can also be found in Jyväskylä, Tampere, Turku and Helsinki. The season in Savonlinna lasts from June to August, but group bookings are also accepted in May and September. The steamers carry an average of 25,000 passengers per season.

Visit the Lake Saimaa Nature and Culture Centre to view exhibitions on the history of Lake Saimaa and its vintage steamboats.

Scenic cruise: Duration 1.5 hours, adults €19, children aged 7–17 €9, and family package €45

Savonlinna-Punkaharju round trip scenic cruise: Duration 2.5 hours, adults €50, children aged 7–17 €20

Opera cruise with onboard buffet: Enjoy a buffet dinner while cruising Lake Saimaa and return to St Olaf’s Castle for the opera. Boat trip €90 + opera ticket starting at €40. Duration: 6.5 hours

Custom cruises (fishing, weddings, birthdays, business, wilderness tours): ): €325 per hour

Savonlinna Opera Festival

Held every summer, the Savonlinna Opera Festival is one of the world’s most acclaimed international opera festivals. First organised in 1912, it takes place in the romantic medieval fortress of St Olaf’s Castle.

This article was first published in the Summer 2015 issue of Finnair's monthly in-flight magazine Blue Wings.