Trip Start Mar 13, 2010
45Trip End Feb 13, 2011
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Where I stayed
We headed straight to Union Square and it was with much excitement that we hopped back on board our trusty tour bus - we were heading away from our usual loop which meant a deviation from the commentary we now knew off by heart! We all gamely scrambled to the open air top deck despite the freezing weather as we wanted the best view possible of our destination - The Golden Gate Bridge!
However, as we trundled along it wasn't just the windchill adding to our discomfort, an opaque fog was descending at rapid speed. After only five minutes or so, the once clear blue sky was completely covered with thick white mist, and after another 5 minutes the mist was low enough to skim the top of our bus. We could barely see anything as the icy winds whipped what little parts of our faces had been left exposed. In fact we didn't manage to catch sight of the bridge until we were nearly on it! Quite suddenly, huge, red metal struts were whizzing by as we drove along the famous structure. Fact attack - it stretches 4,200 feet over the opening of the San Francisco Bay into the Pacific Ocean.
It was a surreal drive and, although we saw no view across the bay whatsoever and could barely see the top of the bridge as it faded into oblivion above us, it was a great experience. Weirdly, on the other side of the bridge the sky was bright blue and the air much warmer, so we were able to warm up a bit as we disembarked to take some pictures of the non-visible bridge.
Once back in the city there was just time for a quick lunch at The Cheesecake Factory (American sized portions, of course) where we were dazzled by yet more Californian over-friendly service. Being praised for everything from our accents to what we chose from the menu had become something of the norm by this point, but it was still a little jarring to our ingrained British-ness. Although the waiter we had on this particular day had an edge on the others - upon hearing our accents he broke into an amazing Matt Lucas impression, doing everything from Vicky Pollard to Marjorie Dawes!
So, full to bursting, we rolled back onto the sightseeing bus and on to Fisherman's Wharf to get the Ferry...to Alcatraz! For the few that don't already know Alcatraz was the prison that housed some of America's most notorious criminals, notably Al Capone and Robert Stroud (aka The Birdman of Alcatraz). As we were no longer trying to stare at the majestic view from The Golden Gate Bridge, naturally the sky was beautiful and clear, so it was a pleasant ride across on the ferry as we watched the notorious island draw closer (we even spotted a couple of sea lions on a nearby buoy) and the mood amongst the group was jolly and excitable.
However, as soon as we dismounted on the Island there was a noticeable change in the atmosphere. It was like stepping back in time, all of the buildings were still as they would have been, but their emptiness gave them an eerie feel. We were led through the main entrance where we saw the line of showers the inmates would have to use upon entry. I'm sure it's no coincidence that we were made to file slowly, in single file, along the walls while queuing to collect our audio guides as it helped put us in the mindset of what it might have been like to be "processed" in this main room. Once we had our audio guides we could walk around the prison at our leisure and learn all about its history. The guide was brilliant, with a narrative interlaced with stories told by ex-inmates and prison guards complete with relevant "ambient" background sounds of echoey heckles and the banging of prison bars.
As we walked around we would occasionally catch a glimpse of the mainland through the barred windows. I can only imagine that the closeness of civilisation must have been torturous to inmates as they could see the lights of the city - on one particular new years eve, cheers from revelers in the city could be heard within the prison walls, carried over on the breeze.
Listening to the first hand accounts was fascinating, as was seeing the escape route used in the famous 'Escape from Alcatraz'. We learnt far more than can be put into a single blog entry, but I would highly recommend the tour to anyone visiting San Francisco so that you can hear and see it all for yourself. A definite highlight!
Despite a great afternoon on the island, we all appreciated the freedom to be able to leave as evening drew in - a journey longed for by so many inmates who spent, in some cases, most of their lives unable to leave.
Once back on the mainland we headed straight back to our hostel as we had a long drive ahead of us the next morning. We decided to forgo our trusty tour bus for this last journey and jumped on one of San Francisco's famous trams to take us back. Mark especially enjoyed the ride as while the rest of us sat on the wooden benches, he got to hang off the side!