The inmates had plenty of time – so should you
05.09.2011 - 06.09.2011 16 °C
It’s the last day of our holiday and we have only one firm appointment - a boat to Alcatraz at 1:45pm.When we started our trip in San Francisco two weeks earlier, we were naïve enough to believe you can just turn up for a day visit. We had to change our plans to return to SF a day earlier then originally planned to fit in this iconic trip. So tip #1: Book your Alcatraz ticket early online.
After getting up and checking out, we arranged for our car to stay at the motel whilst we headed to the Fisherman’s Wharf area to find some breakfast place. By pure chance we ended up in ‘Buena Vista Café’. There was something odd about the place although it took a little while to put a finger on it. Most people were ordering Irish coffee for / with breakfast. Now, M and I are both big fans (and by the way the best Irish coffee in our experience is not made in Ireland - but in Finland!) but not as a first thing in the morning. Unless you are in Amsterdam but M would have to tell you about that. So we sat down at the bar, picked some cooked breakfast and ordered normal coffee with it. This turned out to be a bit of a challenge for the waitress as she struggled to find us clean mugs. Or it might have been her way to demonstrate her disappointment with our choice of a breakfast drink – “You mean you don’t want any alcohol for breakfast? What?! You suckers! Whatever next!”. Food was fine and as we slowly made our way through, it we noticed that pretty much everybody in the place was having an Irish coffee – as aperitif, with the meal or as an after-breakfast drink. How bizarre! Determined to find out the reason behind it, we took to read every leaflet in the bar until we found out that the Buena Vista Café introduced Irish Coffee to the united states in 1952. Check it out on Wikipedia. So whilst everyone else came to experience an original American Irish coffee, us two sods were obviously the only ones who just come for breakfast.
With ample time before the departure of our boat to the rock, we set out to take some pictures of the famous winding Lombard Street. Amidst a never ending stream of cars cruising down the flower lined serpentine and busloads of tourists snapping away, we actually managed to get some good shots of the scenery – there must be millions of pictures like it, but hey, once in a while you just have to go with the flow.
With still a couple of hours to go, we decided to look around the Union Street shopping area and maybe find us some mementos to take home. To our surprise, most of the shops were shut with only a few clothes shops open. It was bank holiday Monday after all and perhaps still quite early. Plus coming from Germany where everything is shut on bank holidays we should have expected it – but being in the land of 24h malls we just envisaged it to be a normal shopping day. Especially as it was a Labour Day weekend and M and I, having lived in the UK, knew bank holiday weekends to be the key shopping events of the year.
We browsed through a couple of shops, but nothing special caught our eye so eventually we decided to wander down to the Alcatraz Pier 33 and treat ourselves to some Ben & Jerry ice-cream on the way. Although we though we had plenty of time, by the time we arrived we were just in time to get in line for boarding our boat. Unfortunately, opening the queue and herding people to the embarkation point didn’t actually mean that boarding was about to start. Well over 20 minutes we stood in a spot without shade, slowly boiling away. Tip #2: Put on sunscreen even if not sunny (you are by the sea), bring an umbrella if cloudy
When finally boarding, it paid to have been on time and in the front part of the queue. We managed to get a great spot right at the front of the boat with fresh breeze on our faces and fantastic views of Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge as we approached the rock. Once we landed, we were welcomed by a ranger giving a short speech of logistics on the island. Quite boring actually, but one interesting thing we learnt was that one of the guided ranger talks was about to start in 20 minutes – topic: “Escape stories”.We killed the time before the walk in the visitor centre at the dock, which is a museum on the history of island, from early military use all the way to the occupation by native Indians after the famous prison had long closed.
Tip #3: Take early trip, take your time and do join ranger walks / talks – they are free and generally very good.
The guided tour wasn’t much of a tour as such; it simply started with a talk on some general escape story history before moving up the path some 100m, continuing with the story of John Scott, moving a further 100m and finishing with the story of John Giles. Doesn’t sound much, but the stories were gripping and the delivery by the ranger spellbinding. Not wanting to spoil the stories in case you happen to take the trip yourself, I give you a brief outline. Both John’s made it of the rock all the way to shore only to be returned to Alcatraz within a few hours.
John Giles, working in the prison laundry which cleaned all the army uniforms of the barracks in the SF area, managed over the years bit by bit to organise himself a complete army uniform and hide the pieces successfully until one day he swapped his prison cloth for the uniform and simply stepped, dressed as Sargent, on the laundry boat which he believed would take him to freedom. Unfortunately for him, the boat did not head to SF town as it always did in all the time he was there, but headed back to the army port where he was promptly arrested. I leave you guessing here what gave him away.
John Scott and a fellow inmate managed to cut through an iron bar in a storeroom under the kitchen, where at meal times they were working unsupervised for 3 x 20 minutes a day. It took them 7 years to achieve this, having only a string and toothpaste as tools – time is clearly the one thing prisoners had plenty of. They managed to get out of the prison and into the water, when their trouble began. Whilst his partner, unable to deal with the strong currents in the bay clung to a rock, hanging on for dear life, being beaten by the choppy waters until he was picked up by the guards, John set out to swim to shore. Although he was aiming for the shortest distance, the strong tidal current swept him along and several hours and some serious wave bashing later, he reached the shore barely alive at Fort Point underneath the Golden Gate Bridge. Seriously damaged by the sharp rocks of the bay and several miles off course, he was lucky to be found by a couple of boys fishing there, which saved his life. Unfortunately for him, he was promptly recognised by the hospital staff and shipped back to Alcatraz a few hours later.
The two stop guided tour took us half way up the hill to the main prison building, where we did an excellent self guided audio tour. It won prizes and having done audio tours in a dozen countries in the past, it was definitely deserved.The tour takes you round the cell block, the guards offices, the dining hall etc., giving a good inside into the prison routine as well as telling stories of famous inmates, escape attempts and riots that happened during Alcatraz’s time as the highest security prison. Tip #4: The audio guide has a pause button, make use of it to get some extra time to take in the details.
After the cell-house tour, we continued to explore the outside areas such as the sport field or the guards little gardens. Whilst interesting, it was freezing. The sun was still out and warm, but strong winds swept all over the island – apparently normal weather on the rock. Tip #5: Whatever the weather, bring a coat or warm jumper and a hat. Not quite expecting this kind of temperature we were decisively underdressed, so after sufficient time walking around, shivering, we decided to take the next boat back to shore. This time we stayed inside on the ship just to warm up again.
By the time we walked back to the hotel it was already 6pm and it was time to make our way towards the airport, check into our hotel and then drop off the rental car.We had no map showing us exactly where the hotel was, but how hard can it be to find an airport Marriott hotel. Quite hard actually – we ended up having to ask in another hotel for directions. With 6am flight home next morning, we took it easy and just repacked our stuff ready for the next morning, before heading to the hotel bar for a nice relaxed dinner with a good bottle of wine to draw to our holiday to a close.
Although the biggest part of our trip was at the end, the flight home took care of yet another story to remember … we had to repeat the packing exercise at the airport check-in to save ourselves a $200 excessive weight charge. $200 for 4 kilos! …. Lets just say United Airlines scored a lowly 1 out of 10 in customer satisfaction in San Francisco and about the same in Chicago when we were advised by not so friendly staff there is no transfer desk in the departure area but instead, we have to go outside and check in again. Fortunately, Lufthansa was there to save the day, with a dazzling score of 10 out of 10. M, having booked her flight independently from me due to her previous work-related trip to Chicago, was presented with a free upgrade to business class. The downside was, the upgrade was only for her. The upside was, she generously gave up this spot of luxury in order to be with me in the economy, which touched our check-in lady so much she decided to check if a second upgrade could be possible. And it was! So it happened our return flight was a nice icing on the cake of our Californian adventure.