Welcome to the Rock

Trip Start Aug 04, 2011
Trip End Jan 04, 2012

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Flag of United States  , California
Friday, December 16, 2011

John Mason: "The Rock has become a tourist attraction?"

A quote from one of my favourite action films. The Rock, (Not the “If You smell What the Rock is Cookin..” wrestler type, but the island in San Francisco). Based on the island of Alcatraz I was always interested in the theory that the Rock was infallible and was like Colditz, almost impossible to break out of. I loved that kind of stuff as a kid, and have always wanted to visit the island. Today we did.

The walk to Pier 33 took about 30 minutes from Post Street and took us up and down the hilly slopes of Chinatown, past the Coit Tower (a small tower that looks like a firehose) and along the waterfronts' historical pier buildings. The queue was already building but I was relatively confident we could get tickets for the day; in fact we managed to get tickets for the next boat and found ourselves running onboard being one of the last people on the 12.10pm tour. We bought ourselves City Passes which give us admission to several attractions including the Alcatraz tour and also unlimited use of the Muni transport and trams ($70 each); very worthwhile with all the hills.

The short boat ride took us across the bay in clear view of both the Bay bridge and the Golden Gate in the north, and brought us under the shadows of the cliffs of Alcatraz and out of the glorious sunshine.We have been once again blessed with the weather. The next 3 days we are in San Francisco the weather has been forecast as winter sunshine; crisp cold days with bright blue skies. Fantastic, and considering we have been warned and warned about the foggy weather of the city spoiling the vistas, we are well chuffed.

 The tour is self-guided for the most part, bar some presentations that occur at different points of the day. When we arrived a tour was just starting led by an old fella in a Ranger costume who was explaining some of the history of the island as a fort; prior to its use as a prison. We joined this tour but within 10 minutes abandoned it as it was just too popular. He was good and funny and we learnt a bit but we were part of the rabble and weren’t enjoying it too much shuffling with the crowds, so decided to go it alone. Very quickly we were able to see parts of the island on our own; including the old power plant, the remnants of accommodation buildings and the parade ground, but quite a few areas were closed for conservation projects (both birds and buildings). The island has a bit of a spooky feel, with the rubble of demolished buildings still piled where it was knocked down nearly 40 years ago and I can’t help feel that if you visit at night or in the fog it must be quite creepy. In the day and in the sunshine the island has a cinematic quality that was clearly easily manipulated by filmmakers, it’s a ready made action film set.

The best part of Alcatraz is the Cellhouse Audio tour. It is excellent. You are guided around all aspects of the cellhouse showing you everything that you would want to see, with soundbytes from former inmates and guards to guide you along. Nothing, including the escape attempts, is left out. The tour is slickly timed and very easy to follow. The only problem we had was how busy the island had become because we had done our own mini tour first. Because we had gone off on our own we seemed to pick up the busiest part of the day; the quietest time to do the cellhouse tour would probably be first thing before the crowds start building. It didn’t ruing the experience too much though.

On finishing the tour we made the most of our time by scuttling our way quickly down the hill back to the boats. They leave only every 30-45 minutes and so if you just miss one, you’ll be waiting around for quite a bit longer. We picked up a couple of souvenirs before jumping onboard; the round trip had taken about 3 hours.

Just down the front a little more is the quite stylish Fishermans Wharf. The highlight of this is pier 39 which is a little shopping district within the pier and which also houses the Aquariam of the Bay (another attraction on the City Pass). The Pier is colourful, brash and brilliantly American. We took in the Aquarium, ate donuts, visited a great chocolate shop, looked around a variety of original souvenir shops and enjoyed both a beautiful sunset and some festive decorations. A lady playing a keyboard beneath the Christmas tree grabbed quite a bit of attention including a surprisingly spritely older lady who felt the need to jig along with the tunes not at all embarrassed with watchers all around. It wouldn’t happen in the UK.

Going back to the sunset quickly – I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like it, it was perfect.

Anyways, we hopped on a tram going back towards the centre of the City after a few disagreements on which was the correct way to go. It should forever more be known that Kate has less sense of direction than a blind confused dizzy drunk. She spends more time looking at maps than a cartographer with a map fetish but is forever getting the directions a little confused, It is frustrating at times because most of the time it is to check on my hunches of direction which are somehow pretty accurate – Sooner or later though, she might trust me, stop checking and I bet that time is the time we’ll end up getting lost.

We went to eat in a diner which we walked past yesterday and thought we’d give it a shot because it is one of those 50’s style diners which is ever so stereotypical. The food was great. I went for the burger and was surprised when the waitress asked how I wanted it cooked in terms of medium, well done etc. I normally just get tasteless cooked meat patties but this was a proper cow burger with flavour. Kate looked disappointed when she saw my burger but enjoyed her fish and chips anyway. She forgot all about it when she was tucking into her toffee sundae however; like everything in America it was a size bigger than expected.

We waddled back to the hostel full to the brim. If I lived here I would be 15 stone within a couple of months but still be smiling. I am starting to understand how Americans feel no guilt or depression in being as big as they are; it’s because they must just enjoy eating so much. The food choices are great and in most cases the food seems to be great. I look forward to dinner every night.

We both are finding San Francisco a breath of fresh air. We haven’t enjoyed a city quite as much as this for the whole trip and it is a bit of a surprise. The city just feels comfortable and friendly, relaxed, genuine and stylish. I hope the next couple of days continue in the same vain.
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