Our last stop on our coastal route up was Santa Cruz. We didn’t hang around the town too long, but enjoyed relaxed beachside vibe and went to visit the famous boardwalk – with the oldest wooden rollercoaster in the USA. There was also a free concert that evening and the typical arcade which really reminded us of Blackpool!
We’d enjoyed our time driving up the Big Sur, but as we arrived at San Francisco there was an element of relief. We’d ultimately been driving away from Chile the last week or so, and were glad to arrive at the most northerly point of this part of our journey.
One of the most well known sites in San Francisco is the Golden Gate bridge, however the summers on the Northern Californian coast are not as we expected. Due to hot inland air rising and heavy cold ocean air replacing it quickly there is alot of fog! Apparently the bay area is one of the foggiest in America during Summer time. We did plan to rent bikes and do the tourist thing of cycling the bridge but due to the fog and being unable to really see the bridge we gave it a miss!
Almost without failure, every person we had spoken to about San Francisco told us if we go to San Francisco we should visit Alcatraz, the former maximum security island prison about 1 mile from the city. Unfortunately for us the tickets for the island sell out weeks in advance, and one of the downsides of our flexible schedule means its hard to buy tickets weeks in advance. By some random act of chance however we scored some tickets 2 days before our arrival – likely due to some cancellations.We arrived with a bucket load of time for our tour on Saturday Morning and parked about an hour away at 7am. It turns out parking in San Francisco can set you back around $6 an hour at least, but we’d found somewhere we could park for free as long as we liked… somehow! We were on the 10:30 tour and arrived an hour early just to be sure. Everything seemed to be going as we’d expected, we boarded the Alcatraz Tours boat, posed for an incredibly awkward (and overpriced) photo, and enjoyed the views sailing from San Francisco to the prison.
It’s a daunting sight, and hard to imagine what it must have felt like for prisoners arriving to their ‘new home’ seeing it for the first time. An island with structures built on unforgiving rock, with freezing cold water surrounding the outside and towering walls and fences surrounding the inside.Disembarking from the ship a ranger greeted us for a safety briefing. We hadn’t realised but in fact the tour was the type you can wander around at your own leisure and take whichever return boat you fancied, which was a nice bonus. But the biggest shocker came in the fact that we had stumbled upon the last ever ‘Alumni Day’ on Alcatraz! At first we thought he was joking, but it turns out once a year they have people who have lived on the island come to give talks. This includes children who were raised here, former prison guards and, probably most interestingly, former inmates!
We decided we’d be there for the inmate talk. There were two scheduled, however one was a Skype call so we decided to visit the in person talk by Bill Baker a former inmate. We sat down an hour early for some front row seats for one of the highlights of our trip so far.The perspective Bill gave us was so different to everything you’d expect from the news (and films) about the prison which housed the likes of Birdman and Al Capone. He told us it wasn’t necessarily the most dangerous criminals, but those who had misbehaved in prison. He had originally been incarcerated for car theft, and then attempted to escape prison 3 times (once successfully!). It wasn’t that he’d necessarily been a particularly sinister criminal, just the escape attempts which led him to Alcatraz.
Some of the things we discovered would have been impossible to find out just from the standard tour. The prison when it was used had a pretty good relationship between inmates. There were fights but it was calmer than prisons today according to Bill – contrary to what you’d believe when you see the place. Also apparently the food was very high quality because there was one kitchen on the island, so the inmates and the guards ate the same food!
After the talk we toured the island with a free audio guide, which gave a brilliant account of some of the attempted escapes – the most notable one where a whole cell block was taken hostage by inmates who stormed the gun room. It was a sad and bloody story, and a great contrast to the stories told by Bill (who had been there at a different period in time).
After our tour of Alcatraz we headed to Pier 33, the tourist pier with the typical line of restaurants, shops and a carousel. There’s also the seals though – they live right off the pier and provide a great free form of entertaining arguing amongst themselves for spots on the sunbathing deck!
All in all the prison visit was an absolute highlight of our trip, and probably would have been anyway. But to meet someone who had lived there really brought it to life for us – and he left us with a great life lesson having been in prison into his 70s.
Don’t get caught!