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California: Alcatraz National Park

Before setting out to the prison island of Alcatraz we needed to get some lunch so we decide to try out the bakery – come café – come restaurant, Boudins, on Fishermans Wharf. This establishment is famous for its sour dough bread and when we arrived there was a crowd watching one of the bread makers in the window making a turtle shaped sour dough creation. He had a microphone so we could hear him outside and he was being interviewed and filmed by the Travel Channel as we watched, so we got a real performance. This has finally set our minds to have sourdough chilli bread bowls for lunch.

By the time we finished, it was approaching departure time for Alcatraz. We would be getting there by the same mode the prisoners would have been transported; by boat from San Francisco. Alcatraz was a Federal prison from 1934 to 1963 and was a place where the worst of the worst got sent. All but one of the total 1600 prisoners who called Alcatraz home were transferred from other State Penitentiaries for being “naughty” boys (were trouble makers or had committed crimes whilst inside, such as murdering a fellow inmate or worse; a prison guard). Such infamous characters as the gangsters Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelley and Robert Stroud, the birdman of Alcatraz, were incarcerated here for the remainder of their lives. Alcatraz had no death row, so you only left after completing your sentence or passed away from natural causes. This place had been a military fort for many years before becoming a penitentiary.

The prison service stopped using it in 1963 because it was too expensive to maintain. Alcatraz was then occupied by native Americans for several years, during which time some damage was done to several buildings. The use of open fires to keep warm resulted in several fires, including one which wrecked the Governors residence. Latterly, Alcatraz was made a National Park, preserving it for the 1½ million visitors who come to see this infamous prison annually.

The view the prisoners had from Alcatraz
Looking across to the city of San Francisco from Alctraz Island

When we disembarked the boat we arrived just in time to join a Ranger tour. This tour focused on the many escapes attempts from Alcatraz. Our guide was a gruff New Yorker called Al Blank, who reminded me a bit of Kojak (aka Telly Savalas – for those old of enough to remember this TV series). Al was a fantastic narrator and provided a spell binding overview of the 34 people who tried to escape this prison island. Some of the attempts were creative, including the escape immortalised in the Clint Eastwood movie “Escape from Alcatraz” and others were bloody, in particular the 1946 incident where prison guards were taken hostage and the Governor had to call in the Marines. The official line is that no one successfully escaped the island but some prisoners, such as those depicted in Escape from Alcatraz were never found. They were believed to have drowned. Why did no one escape? Well, the water is a cool 48 degrees Fahrenheit and the tides and currents are treacherous!

Ranger tour at Alcatraz
The water tower

After our guided tour we went to the main cell block where there is a self-guided audio tour that, with narration from some of the former guards and inmates, helps you form an impression of what sort of place this was in which to be incarcerated. For many the hardest thing was to be a mere 1½ miles from San Francisco and freedom. With the wind in the right direction, the prisoners could clearly hear the sounds of the city, driving them literally mad. The tour took us through the cell areas including block D, which was designated for solitary confinement. These cells were the largest and most modern in the block. We also got to go into the administration area with the control room, guardhouse and Governor’s office. Here we meet up with our old new friend Al Blank who introduced us to a fellow volunteer, John Ellis. Karen got chatting, as she has a tendency to do, telling them about her work in the UK prison service. Well, this did the trick and we were invited on a special tour into locked areas where most people don’t get to go. We climbed up to where the prison chapel used to be; the panelled walls were removed by the occupying native Americans and used as firewood. We got to see the prison guards’ games room and were then taken to the gun galleries where armed officers could look down into the cell block. John then took us into a part of the cellblock which was not used in the penitentiary days but was the original cells for the military prison, and from there we climbed the stairs to the old infirmary. Alcatraz has actually had a well-equipped infirmary including an operating theatre and full-blown sanatorium. In the sanatorium was a room where Robert Stroud (the Bird Man) was held in solitary confinement for many years. Unlike the gentle, intelligent man depicted in the Burt Lancaster film, Stroud was a psychopathic killer deemed to be too dangerous to be in the areas with the rest of the inmates were detained. These areas remain closed to the general public partially due to the single access stairs but also due to the lead-based paint that the continual exposure to saltwater spray carried on the wind is effectively stripping off the walls. We were so lucky to see these special places. By this time we finished our special tour, we were running close to the knuckle for catching the last boat back to the mainland. Unlike the inmates of this desolate place, we did make our escape!

The wind has picked up and it was really, really cold. We had planned to spend a bit more time going around Fisherman’s Wharf and perhaps catch a cable car, but it was just too cold. We did go on to Pier 39 where we caught a street performer doing his act; a mixture of comedy, juggling and escapology. He was actually very good. The funniest thing was right at the end of his act this old couple came up and sat down at the front of the stage and soon as he had finished and started his request for donations they got up and left like rats out of a trap. It was just as if one had said the other “ … come on dear we’ve only just arrived and now he’s finished and begging for money, let’s slip out of here unnoticed”. Their timing was impeccable, and the performer was lost for words and his eyes just followed them, and of course, being at the front everyone saw this, causing everyone to break out laughing. The temperature had dropped further and it was freezing, so we did a quick run past the Pier 39 seal lions performing, as they do, on the floating platforms and then made a dash for the warmth of our car.

Planning your visit to Alcatraz

Website:https://www.nps.gov/alca/index.htm
Telephone:T:(415) 561-4900
Hours:

Access to Alcatraz Island is via commercial ferry service

The hours of operation vary with the season. Departures are available about every half hour throughout the day beginning at 8:45am. Evening tours, Behind the Scenes Tours, and combined Angel Island-Alcatraz Island tours are also available on a set schedule.

Admission Fees

Alcatraz tickets are all inclusive. The ticket price includes the ferry transportation service provided by Alcatraz City Cruises, the cellhouse audio tour provided by the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, and the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act fee.

Alcatraz City Cruises is the official source for ferry tickets to Alcatraz Island. You may buy tickets online, by phone or in person.

Best time to visit Alcatraz

San Francisco enjoys a warm, summer Mediterranean climate, characteristic of dry summers, and mild winters. The weather is influenced by currents from the Pacific Ocean primarily. During summer, the temperature is high during the day and cool at night, and the early mornings and evenings are damp, moist, and foggy.

Most tourists land in San Francisco between April and December, when the weather is quite mild and festivities at their best. The peak of the travel season is in summer when the temperature is warm, and most days are dry but beautifully misty and foggy. During summer, there are many festivals and parties within San Francisco, as well as many street fairs and numerous free outdoor entertainments.

Where to stay in San Francisco

1. PETITE AUBGERGE

Located on San Francisco’s Nob Hill, this French-style B&B offers serves a daily free breakfast. All guest rooms include free WiFi. Theaters, shopping and dining in San Francisco’s Union Square are just 5 minutes’ walk away.

All of the smoke-free rooms at Petite Auberge offer antique décor, a flat-screen TV, an armoire/closet and guest bathrobes. The private bathrooms include boutique bath products and a hairdryer.

Petite Auberge features a charming lobby fireplace. Guests can also take advantage of free wine and snacks delivery.

Powell Street Cable Car stop is 7 minutes’ walk away. The Dragon’s Gate entrance to San Francisco’s Chinatown is 8 minutes’ walk away. Grace Cathedral is 5 minutes’ walk from Petite Auberge.

2. NOE’S NEST BED & BREAKFAST

Located in a charming Victorian house in San Francisco’s central Noe Valley neighborhood, Noe’s Nest Bed and Breakfast serves a generous daily buffet breakfast and offers guest rooms with free WiFi.

Each uniquely decorated guest room at this B&B features a flat-screen cable TV and a private marble bathroom with free toiletries and a hairdryer. Select suites include a relaxing spa bath and garden views.

The breakfast at Noe’s Nest Bed and Breakfast is served each morning from 08:00 to 10:30 and includes eggs for self-service cooking, dried fruits and nuts, fresh seasonal fruits, cheeses, breads, bagels (toaster provided) and pastries. Spreads include cream cheese and butter. Dietary replacements (soy milk, rice milk and gluten free breads and cereals) and a kosher breakfast are provided upon request.

Guests can relax in the garden at this B&B. There is also concierge service at the property.

3. INN SAN FRANCISCO

Serving a daily breakfast buffet and 24-hour refreshments, Inn San Francisco offers guest rooms with authentic Victorian décor and free WiFi. This B&B is 1.5 mi from San Francisco City Hall.

A flat-screen cable TV is provided in each plush room at this B&B. Guest rooms also include a refrigerator and an private bathroom with free toiletries and guest bathrobes.

Guests of Inn San Francisco can relax in the hot tub. A garden and a games room are located on site. Other facilities offered at the property include a shared lounge and laundry facilities.

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