“Alcatraz. It’s more than just a prison.”
This was the motto we heard as we boated over to the isolated prison island, and it gave us a good laugh.
However, as a national park, I guess it makes sense that they want us to take a step back from the focusing on the tiny island as being home to not only a maximum security prison, but also to at least 7 different species of seabird providing numerous bird-watching opportunities… … ?
Either way, we did something we usually never do, and that was to book a tour of the Alcatraz prison. This was the only way to get on the island, and the tour was highly recommended to us by anyone we spoke to. So, we decided to take a risk and go for it.
We floated over to the island, which houses not only the prison on the very top of “The Rock”, but also several other buildings in order to accommodate hundreds of isolated people: a power plant, food and laundry facilities, plus apartments to house the guards and their families. Yes, families too! The guards brought their wives and children to live on the island with them while they worked. A little risky, considering that in the end 8 guards and 2 wives were killed on the island during the prison’s time in operation.
The tour itself was focused solely on the prison building, and was very well done. It was short & sweet, well organized, and made engaging by incorporating the voices of previous inmates and guards to tell their stories and experiences within the prison.
During its time in operation, Alcatraz was where the “worst of the worst” criminals went. Apparently you really had to screw up to end up there, as criminals often had to fail regular, non-castaway prisons before they were sent to Alcatraz. A known criminal imprisoned here was Al Capone (which they kept referring to as a “famous criminal”… it made us wonder if criminals should ever really be recognized as celebrities?).
The most interesting stories are the attempts to escape from Alcatraz, which included several. Apparently no one was ever able to escape alive, although there is the one story that movies are made about that describes a trio of men who escaped through a hole in their cell wall (that they picked away at with spoons for over a year, by the way) and ended up in the utility corridor between cells. This allowed them to climb up through the ducting system, onto the roof, and then down to the water where they floated away in a raft. Though they have never been found, the FBI tried really hard for a good 17 years before they decided they all likely died in the cold waters of the San Francisco bay.
As part of the escape from Alcatraz plan, the trio fashioned fake heads out of soap + toilet paper with real hair on top to leave in their beds while they escaped through the hole they dug around the vent in their room.
Either way, after operating for 29 years, the prison finally closed down due to high operating costs. Obviously shipping goods to an island is not an economical task, not to mention the more challenging factor: weather. The moody and windy skies of San Francisco wore down these very exposed buildings quickly.
Final San Fran Wrap-Up
In Andrew’s words, San Francisco is “like a fancy Mexico”.
Our time here is done already, but we’ve had a lot of fun. San Francisco is a pleasurable and colorful (did we ever mention that seeing people walk around in random costume was a common daily occurrence?) city to visit with many things to do. It is a beautiful place with a casual Californian feel. The foggy mist makes it unique, and hills make going over to a friend’s house a daily hiking excursion.
Overall we enjoyed a variety of activities, including some of the touristy stuff like hopping on silly cable cars or biking along the Golden Gate bridge; but we also got to do a lot of our own exploring as we wandered around the city’s diverse neighborhoods without an agenda, or when we drove our rental car around the outlying areas (twice). I also think we all had a little too much fun shopping…
By the way, every one here was shocked at our good deals (such as our hotwire-d great price for a hotel in a prime location in the city, or our car rental costs that the rental company itself was shocked at saying, “I don’t know how you got this price, our starting rates are in the $150s per day”), so maybe we’re becoming travel pros by now ;)
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The Alcatraz Tour is one that needs to be booked in advance because it fills up quick. The fee includes ferry to and from the island as well as the audio tour which is very well done. As of 2014 the prices were $30 for ages 12+ and $18.25 for under 12. There is also a special Alcatraz night tour that is available but will cost $7 extra. The tours depart from Pier 33 about every 30min during the day. We truly enjoyed this tour and would highly recommend it to anyone.