By Diane Ako
Our first activity of the trip was a visit to Alcatraz Island, also known as The Rock. (Yeah, I've heard islanders call Hawaii the same thing, but trust me, it ain't the same!) It's in the San Francisco Bay, 1.5 miles offshore from San Francisco. Though it's had many roles over the decades, it's best known for its service as a Federal Bureau of Prisons federal prison.
I came here only once, when I was about 13, so I had forgotten many things about this place. Alcatraz has also hosted a lighthouse, a military fortification, and a military prison. From 1934-1963 it was a federal prison, housing infamous criminals including Al Capone, Robert Franklin Stroud (the Birdman of Alcatraz), George "Machine Gun" Kelly, James "Whitey" Bulger, Bumpy Johnson, Mickey Cohen, Arthur R. "Doc" Barker and Alvin Karpis.
In 1972, Alcatraz became a national recreation area. It is a historic site operated by the National Park Service as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Tours are free, but you have to pay for the ferry ride from Pier 33, near Fisherman's Wharf. There is only one tour operator that contracts with the Park Service to provide this ferry service, and that is Hornblower Cruises.
It's $26 per adult and $16 per child ages 5 - 11, so if you have a family like we did, your cheapest option is to get the Family Ticket, which includes two adults and two kids for a $5 savings. However, it's not available online. You should definitely call and buy tickets at least a week ahead of time, because cruises sell out. The day we showed up there were "Sold Out" signs and we were one of the morning sails!
The ferry ride is very comfortable, and it's a half hour sail. When you get off, you crowd around the main square and hear one of the rangers giving some general directions on a bullhorn. He basically tells you where you can go, and where to pick up the free audio tour. You walk up the hill and go into the first building, where there's a pretty good ten minute film on the history of the island.
After that, you walk to the prison, pick up your audio tour, and walk the building for about an hour. You're herded in like cattle, and the first sight that greets you is the same thing the prisoners saw: the showers. No hot water, by the way. That alone is a crime deterrent for me - ha ha.
You'll see not only the cells decorated as they were when prisoners were living in them, but solitary confinement, the recreation yard, the library, and the scene of the most notorious escape attempt, complete with bomb marks on the floor. There's also a memorial to the officer who died in that incident. The audio tour is well done and really brings the history of the prison to life.
After wandering the prison, you're fed into the gift shop, where by some good luck, we got to meet a former prisoner. Darwin Coon authored a book, Alcatraz: The End of the Line, and goes five days a month for a book signing. I bought the book for the novelty of having him sign it. I then asked him some questions (you can take the girl out of the newsroom but not the newsroom out of the girl) which seemed to annoy him.
He served time for bank robbery, and I asked him if he had any advice for juvenile delinquents headed down the same path. "Don't do it," he stated. "There is nothing fun about prison."
I asked him about his worst memory in Alcatraz. "Serving time in The Hole (isolation). Twenty nine days."
I asked him if he regretted parts of his life. He looked at me blandly. "Nope. Cain't do nothin' about it," he said.
I asked him what he did after he left prison. He sighed and looked at me, as if to wonder when this broad would stop asking questions. Maybe as a preemptive move, he responded with several sentences. "I was a property manager. Twenty two years. Never broke the law again."
I asked him if he's happy now. I like to ask that. I like to know. I think it also irritates some people because if one is trying to live in denial of constant unhappiness, this question sort of roots it up. That's not why I ask it, but sometimes I get an agitated response.
"Yep," he said.
I could tell the interview was over. I thanked him and left the table. Claus said he saw Coon leave the table shortly thereafter, step outside, and puff a cigarette a few times, looking irritated.
When I went to buy the book, I mentioned to the cashier that I think I annoyed Coon. "Oh, Darwin? He's just like that," laughed the clerk. "He's actually really nice." I'm sure he is. And I'm sure the same questions over and over must get dull.
After that, we left. There's a bit more to see, including a tour of the bird life and the inmates' flower garden, but it was a cold day, and we had seen the most interesting parts.
My advice to you if you are going, and/or going with kids:
1) Bring a stroller. The walk from the boat to the prison is up a long, winding hill. The walk inside the prison is long, too.
2) Bring food. The kids got hungry by the end. I used it to keep Olivia quiet during the tour, and then we all ate on the ferry back.
3) Wear layers, but pack a jacket! Better if waterproof. It was definitely chilly.
4) Handicapped: We saw a tram for people with mobility issues. I'm sensitive to this topic because my mother can't walk that well. Once inside the prison, there is a fair amount of walking and some stairs. If you have a wheelchair, that would work. There is an elevator.
You could probably spend the better part of a day there, because you can walk around the whole island. If you go at night, I have read that they give you a more guided tour, but we thought we'd see more (literally) by day, plus it's so darn cold when the sun is up, why would I want to freeze more at night? At the least, allow for two to three hours.
This makes me want to rent the 1979 Clint Eastwood movie, Escape From Alcatraz!
After Alcatraz, it was still cold and overcast. We dropped the plan to walk across Golden Gate Bridge, and instead walked to Pier 39.
By the way, we parked at Pier 27, and parking rates just increased to $25 a day. The increase must have been very new, because not even the signs in the lot were updated. Technically, it's $25 per 24 hour period, but really. I would think most people are doing what we did and needing it only for a half day or so.
I have only ever needed to go to Pier 39 once in my life, as it's so touristy I can do without it. But it was something for the kids to do and it was nearby. We rode a carousel.
We then drove back down south to have dinner with my Kamehameha classmate Kristiann. Coincidentally, a lot of the friends I wanted to see on this trip live in Campbell, which is where I used to live, too. We split the difference geographically and picked a restaurant in Mountain View.
We returned late to the apartment, and turned in for bed at around midnight - which was to be our trend for the whole trip. I forgot how the late summer sunsets in California mess with your body clock. In Hawaii I like to go to sleep at 10 pm, but in California, with it being light out until 9 p.m., I didn't even feel tired till 10.
I love how it's just the right coldness at night - what great sleeping weather!
Also reach me via DianeAko.com