The highlight of our San Francisco visit was the Alcatraz tour. For sure. No doubt about it.
I’d highly recommend reading up on it as it has some great story behind: Comprehensive info is provided on wikipedia.
The tour was so really well organized, intense (in good meaning of this word) and… felt real and authentic. But lets start from the beginning:
There is only one company that you can book Alcatraz tour through – The http://www.alcatrazcruises.com/ – all the other ones will take you around the Alcataraz island – but you wont be able to see the actual prison.
I highly recommend taking the earliest possible tour and booking as early as possible to avoid situation when all the slots are sold out – and they sell real quick – and that what almost happened to us – we’ve waited too long and went online to book just 2 days before the day we wanted to go on – and all of regular tours were sold out – the only availble tickets were for Alcatraz+Angel Island combo which was twice as much (over 50$) and took half a day.
We showed up on the day at Pier 33 around 8am – grabbed something to eat across the road (there is no food on the island – only on the ferry, but it is seriously overpriced – as one can expect) – and around 9am started queuing to get admitted on the boat.
Everything was nicely organized – no confusion where to queue etc etc. (again – buy your tickets online – the card on tickets booth informed that all tours were sold out for 3 days!).
Anyway. It’s taken maybe 20 min to get to the island – and at the very beginning – a nice surprise: once a month one of the former guards of Alcatraz (actually the youngest one to ever work there) was visiting the prison and was signing his book. He gave a quick greeting speech and invited everyone to ask as many questions as they liked – he was available to talk to in the gift shop at the end of the tour. Today this gentleman is 85 years old, suffered a stroke couple of years ago – but is back to on The Rock to talk to people. A truly amazing personality. I was lucky enough to be able to talk to him for couple of minutes while he was signing the book we purchased. BTW: his name is Frank Heaney and parts of his book are available here. Oh, and he’s from Berkeley (we actually stayed in the hotel there!) and is of Irish heritage – both of his parents came to the USA around 1915 and 1920 from Northern Ireland. Frank immediately smiled when I told him where I lived. He said: “ah, the Old Country… I wish my health allowed me to go back there one more time!” 🙂
But coming back to the tour – once the orientation speech finished we were asked to go up to the cell house, collect our audio self-tour mp3 players and just follow the instructions. And that was the best thing ever. The audio tour was just amazing. Really well done – not only everyone could explore the walls of the prison at their own pace, but the recording was prepared in such a way that you could really feel the magic of the place. It professionally guided you through all the rooms and parts of this place in a very VERY interesting way. It wasn’t the usual – “go here, go there, this is that, and this is it” but instead it gave you the true experience of how the prison worked, it had not only the insides on the daily routines, but examples on some real life situation that took place during the over 30 years while Alcatraz served as the maximum security penitentiary.
By the way – did you know that no prisoner was ever admitted to Alcatraz directly, nor no prisoner was ever released from Alcatraz – they all had been transferred from or to other prisons. The used to say there:”“If you break the rules, you go to prison. If you break the prison rules, you go to Alcatraz”.
This way or another – it takes around 2h to complete the tour – if you have just the basic ticket – you can hang out there for as long as you want until the last boat leave the island (I think it was around 6pm) – we had the Angel Island add on and had to board another boat there. I want say much about it as it was rather boring. Basically they put you on bus-type of thing and rode around the island explaining it’s history etc etc. Don’t get me wrong – Angel Island is a beautiful place and has really rich history behind – however after seeing Alcatraz – it was just tough to top it.
Anyway – that’s it I guess – All the Alcatraz photos are HERE. 🙂 ENjoy!
PS. The day after our trip there I’ve watched the “Escape from Alcatraz” a 1979 classic with Clint Eastwood. I remember seeing it as a teenager, but only after being there now I could really enjoy and ‘feel’ the film (with one little remark (it was also mentioned by Frank Heaney: the characters in the movie are shown in positive light, where the truth was – they were in Alcatraz for a reason… – but oh well, that’s Hollywod…)