Our precaution was merited. We made it in with almost 30 minutes to spare, but it meant we had time to get parked and check in without the slightest hyperventilation. Always a good way to start the day.
The notorious federal prison Alcatraz was our first destination, via a ferry boat ride across the San Francisco Bay. The island of Alcatraz is surprisingly close to the mainland, considering how impenetrable it is reputed to be – or rather inescapable. Icy water, infested with sharks and rife with undercurrents, presented a strong deterrent to prisoners, although our guides told us the sharks were small bottom feeders with no interest in a diet of human flesh.
The island was first used as a fortress to protect the bay, because of its strategic location. It became a federal penitentiary in 1934, and until it closed in 1963, it housed, on average, 260 inmates. Prison guards and their families lived on the island as well, in quarters next door to the prison block. The island is a bird sanctuary and boasts some beautiful gardens that were established by the non-prison residents.
It amazed me to see, in the bookshop and gift shop, the huge range of products related to the prison that were offered for sale, from coffee mugs to replicas of the keys used to lock the cells, fridge magnets to reproductions of wanted posters of the worst felons. They even had the elderly William Baker, prisoner number 1259, seated at a table signing copies of his book about his days in Alcatraz, with a lineup of eager buyers!
Back on the mainland, we connec-ted with our city tour bus and headed out to see the sights. It was great having a dri-ver navigate the narrow streets and steep hills while we simply gawked. Houses on the city’s streets are jammed one against the other, block after block, with hardly a blade of grass or tree anywhere. There are no grocery stores or gas stations, and we were told there are only three car washes in the entire city!
We visited the Golden Gate Bridge – with time to actually walk on it and feel the rumbling traffic zinging past – and Golden Gate Park, a beautiful green space with gardens, playing fields and museums. Chinatown – the country’s largest – fills several city blocks, and the Haight-Ashbury section of town still bears the psychedelic graffiti from its hippie days in the 1960s (remember? “If You Are Going to San Francisco…be sure to wear some flowers in your hair.”).
Cable cars navigate some of the steepest hills in the city – there are 48 hills in all, and some almost made us dizzy as we looked down from the heights. The locals are very conscious of caring for the environment, with hybrid taxis and recycling programs. We rounded out the day with a seafood dinner at Pier 39, overlooking the bay as the sun dipped and the lights began to sparkle across the water.