The one sure-fire thing Vince wanted to do, when we were on our Coastal, California Self Drive Adventure, was visit Alcatraz. It had been 13 years since we last stood on the Bay, only to discover it closed for Fleet Week. This time he was determined to get up close and personal with somewhere he’d always wanted to visit. We were on our way to Los Angeles to meet up with our daughter Chloe and son Connor. Something we were both really looking forward to!
This meant, first stop off the plane was a trip to San Francisco and a two night stay in the city. I love to use public transport when in a different country and having explored the ease of the journey online a few times, we decided to catch the train to get there. Around a 40 minute train ride, costing around $10.30 each. I’d like to say it was simple but alas we needed some help from the stern ticket master, to ensure we’d figured out how to pay for our ticket and clipper card properly. Also on arrival at the downtown station, it was pouring with rain, we both had small but very full backpacks. We’ve always travelled like this but I had forgotten the pressure this would put on my ankle, still in very early days of recovery after breaking it. The floor looked very slippery, I felt very uncomfortable and initially we thought we were close to where we were staying. How wrong could we be.
As I sit and write this in my conservatory, the rain is pouring down. The weather was very similar when we finally arrived at our Travelodge accommodation, around a 15 minute walk from the Alcatraz Cruises terminal on Pier 13. We knew we were only going to stay in the city for two nights, so had decided to book somewhere cheap and close, as we didn’t intend to be staying in our room for long and wanted a short walk as we would be up early. Getting to the motel meant walking up hilly roads but it also enabled us to see the shops and sights as we did so.
Poor Vince had me breaking down in tears as we yomped along the pavement . ‘Are we there yet,’ was a question I asked every few minutes, thinking at any moment my ankle would collapse and somehow break again. I was in a lot of pain. Yet on arrival, with the excitement of knowing our tour had been booked for the next day, we quickly fell asleep and on waking, made our way to the pier.
We were out promptly before 9 and as quiet, able to jump on an earlier ship. Our hands stamped to denote our boarding and with a short and beautiful ride across the bay, we finally alighted onto the island.
There was a ranger talk at the beginning to orientate us and the walk up to the prison building itself was very hilly. We rode in the buggy provided for those with walking challenges. It actually turned out to be brilliant, as we arrived at the top chatting away with a ranger about working on the island, making our way into the prison and connecting with the helpful staff, who provided us with headphones for the audio tour provided.
It was interesting to see the cells and imagine the prisoners living there. What a community they must have made and being outdoors, working on the prison grounds and gardens, I thought must have been a role much treasured, as the hummingbirds flitted around us. Skyscraper views of the city soared in front of us and the rolling fog covered both the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridges to either side. We were told that on New Years Eve, the fireworks in the city and harbour parties could be heard from the island. We thought how frustrating that must have been for the prisoners.
We also heard tales of Singer Kanye West, pulling up on the island in his yacht and being turned away. It was great to chat with the staff and find out their stories about working there. I asked one, “is it spooky here alone at night?” as he told us that one person took it in turns to stay on the island after dusk. “No,” he responded. Much to my disappointment!
The prison audio tour, went on a bit long for my liking but the stories come from prisoners and guards alike. It was interesting to see the cells, definitely no privacy here and the activities which the inmates did to keep themselves busy, the library with its high ceiling and lots of light, somewhere I reckon it was treasured to work.
As a Visitor, I loved the grounds. The ruins of the wardens house and the bushes round the side filled with busy little birds. A seal poked its head up from the swirling ocean, close to the rocks, down below. The privilege which I had, to leave the eerie confines of indoors and sit on one of the benches outside, taking in the splendiferous view spewed out around the island, was not lost on me.
We spent around 2 and a half to 3 hours on the island. Which is plenty of time. The buggy ride up a god send, the walk down ideal, as we were able to explore the grounds at our own pace. In the summer it must be heaving, which wouldn’t give you as much a chance to have a slightly more personal experience, which we did. Go in the winter if you can. The rolling fog only adds to the atmosphere of the place. I’d say its definitely worth a visit – even if you’re not that interested in the prison’s history, go simply for the views of San Francisco and the Bay itself. They were gorgeous.
It was a great start to what was going to be our great big, american, adventure!