Big Sur to San Francisco
It was an early start but worth it for the delicious complimentary pancake breakfast which had been whipped up by our trek guide. He was quite the chef and I was worrying about what kind of breakfast I would produce when I started cooking duties! With this in mind I made the most of the pancakes and settled down to eat them! Then we were back on the road and heading north to San Francisco. I was looking forward to our exciting itinerary there and could not wait to arrive!
Our main stop, before we arrived in San Francisco was at a small city called Monterey. Located on California’s beautiful central coast novelist John Steinback drew inspiration for his novel based on Cannery Row from Monterey. There were a number quaint seafood restaurants at Old Fisherman’s Wharf and gift shops to wander around. Our first stop though was the Monterey Bay Aquarium which has thousands of marine animals on display and a range of informative interactive exhibits and even touch pools which were pretty cool and contained starfish. I was immediately drawn to the jellyfish. They really were awesome and seemed alien. It was as if they had lights on them and continuing with the alien metaphor, they really did look like UFOs drifting through the water. I was glad I was on the right side of the glass as I doubt it would be good to encounter them in the wild! Next to catch my eye were the furry sea otters which I immediately fell in love with. Nearby, a diver was in one of the tanks seemingly feeding the fish. She had drawn quite a large crowd and it was interesting to watch. Distributed over two floors there were a wealth of interesting sea creatures in well-maintained tanks and aquariums and I enjoyed looking at the sharks and of course the penguins which are always fascinating animals to observe as they waddle around happily!
After a few hours in Monterey Bay Aquarium we ventured into Monterey. There were some great little gift shops for some souvenirs and we also stopped to have a late lunch at the Bubba Gump restaurant which was located on Cannery Row. Inspired by the movie Forrest Gump, Bubba Gump Shrimp Company was founded in 1996 and has several delicious shrimps inspired meals on the menu. It had spectacular views of Monterey Bay and it was a great place to chill and relax and take in the surroundings. I decided to order the Captains Fish & Chips rather than eating the shrimp which although was a little above my budget was absolutely delicious and much better than eating from the chippy back in England!
After our lunch at Bubba Gump’s we continued to walk around Cannery Row and Old Fisherman’s wharf. There were a few interesting shops to look around and I found the candy shop IT’SUGAR pretty impressive with its colourful, oversized candy and I was only too happy to accept a free sample from one of the store clerks outside the store. Needless to say, it was delicious! There was also a baseball memorabilia store which educated me on the baseball teams in America. Attending a baseball match was on my to do list but mainly as a cultural experience as I do not know much or indeed anything at all about baseball!
Finally, we arrived in San Francisco and this was when I started to get a buzz of excitement as we were given the opportunity to walk across the Golden Gate Bridge. As one of the most beautiful bridges in the world with its tremendous towers, imposing cables and art deco style the ‘International Orange’ colour was selected by the Consultant Architect Irving F. Morrow and contrasts with the nearby Marin hills, ocean and the sky. The suspension bridge spans the Golden Gate which is a one-mile-wide strait connecting San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean. More recently a safety upgrade to the railings has made the Golden Gate Bridge ‘sing’. This is caused by the wind at certain angles blowing through the railings creating a unique humming sound!
We took our time as we walked across the Golden Gate Bridge, I was keen to take in the views both of the city and I could also see Alcatraz Prison which was another place I was very keen to visit while I was in San Francisco. It was one of those iconic experiences and my buzz of excitement enabled me to fully appreciate the experience.
Our trek leader gave us a tour of the city. I was extremely impressed not only did they have the beautiful Golden Gate Bridge, but we also were able to take in more views of Alcatraz Prison, Fisherman’s Wharf, Chinatown and of course the world’s most crooked street! After a whistle-stop tour of the city we enjoyed a night out at Double Dutch which was a throw-back to the 1980s with its hip-hop scene, vintage boombox wall and graffiti art from the streets of New York. However, the highlight for me was the break-dancers challenging each other with their unique and athletic dance-offs including guys spinning around on their heads! It just seemed very overtop and very American and so of course – I loved it!
We arrived early next morning at Pier 41 of Fisherman’s Wharf with the intention of catching the ferry over to Alcatraz. However, we were told that the ferries to Alcatraz were fully booked and our only hope was purchasing a standby ticket. I didn’t want to miss out and I was prepared to wait as we only had one day to explore San Francisco and although there were plenty of other sights to see my heart was set on a tour of Alcatraz prison. With this in mind we purchased a standby ticket and joined the queue where we were stationed for a couple of hours. Despite the wait we managed to board the ferry – learning from experience and my advice to others is always to book in advance – especially if you only have extremely limited time!
It was a rather grey, cloudy day which seemed to make the approach and indeed Alcatraz seem eery and foreboding. The menacing atmosphere the weather had cast over Alcatraz Prison added to the experience as did the solitary sailboat which was enjoying the choppy sea. In between the ominous views of the Alcatraz I turned my attention to the city and of course the Golden Gate Bridge which were also visible from the ferry and I took this opportunity to take some photographs and also film the approach with my camcorder. Fog hung over the towers of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Upon arrival the eery atmosphere lifted not because the weather had improved but due to a rather chirpy and enthusiastic guide who was addressing everyone as they left the ferry. She was warm and bubbly, and I stopped to listen to a few of her fascinating facts. These included informing us that Robert Shroud, who was the ‘Birdman of Alcatraz’ didn’t in fact keep any birds and that he’d told the guards he wanted to escape so that he could kill more people! Nice guy! She also tested people on their knowledge of movies which were based on Alcatraz such as ‘Escape from Alcatraz’ which was based on the escape in 1962 of Frank Morris and brothers Clarence and John Anglin. However, she told us that ‘Jurassic Park,’ ‘The Empire Strikes back’ and ‘Terminator 2: Judgement Day’ also had a relationship with Alcatraz! Apparently, the sound of the cell doors closing was used as a sound effect in these movies!
We were given a concise little guidebook which could be used during a self-guided tour of the island. It was highly informative and brought the prison to life in terms of its history which in turn made the visit to Alcatraz more interesting. The U.S army first established a fort on the barren island in 1853 and in 1859 it was first used as a prison for eleven men who were placed in a dungeon-like room that was accessed with a ladder through a hatch in the floor of the guardhouse. Over time, four separate buildings were constructed to hold prisoners and in 1908 the War Department began construction of the last cellhouse. The cellhouse was governed by military rules of conduct and punishment however with the new building came a new attitude towards rehabilitation and a school was established with departments of education, vocational and military training. Every prisoner received some sort of instruction and many returned to active army service with 70% finishing tours of duty and held in high regard. However, due to the expense of moving supplies and personnel to the island Alcatraz was transferred to the Department of Justice in 1933 and after being renovated it opened as a Federal Penitentiary in 1934 and held inmates until 1963.
When the prison opened in 1934 at the height of the Great Depression, prohibition and the rise of the gangster era in America the government was determined to control prisoners and deter crime and it was the most restrictive prison in the Bureau of Prisons system. During the renovation, the cellhouse had been fitted with case hardened, tool-resistant steel bars, security doors, metal detectors and gun cages. Outside there were miles of barb wire and guard towers were constructed. There was one guard for every three inmates and thirteen official headcounts in each 24-hour period. They were also given a copy of a document called ‘Regulations for Inmates’ which explained the tight restrictions imposed on each prisoner. Over 29 years 1,545 men did time at Alcatraz amongst the most famous inmates were:
George “Machine Gun” Kelly who was imprisoned at Alcatraz from 1934 – 1951 for kidnapping.
Al “Scarface” Capone who was imprisoned at Alcatraz for tax evasion from 1934 – 1939.
Robert Shroud “Birdman of Alcatraz” who was imprisoned at Alcatraz from 1942 – 1959.
There were fourteen known attempts to escape from the prison. The thirteenth escape attempt occurred on June 11th, 1962 by Frank Morris and brothers Clarence and John Anglin. They escaped from their cells through enlarged air vents. They placed dummy heads in their beds when they left to give the illusion they were still sleeping in their beds. The men climbed to the top of the cellblock and onto the roof along a ventilator shaft. They climbed down a cast-iron stovepipe and entered the water with floatation devices made from raincoats and were never seen again. The movie ‘Escape from Alcatraz’ is based on this escape attempt.
I was fascinated by the history of the prison and I made sure that I got the obligatory photograph inside a jail cell! I can only imagine how terrible it was to be locked-up in one of those cells. They sure were grim! They were windowless places with no privacy. The man in the cell opposite could see you sleep, shave, and use the toilet. The cells are 5 feet wide, 9 feet deep and 7 feet high with cement walls, a steel-frame bed with a thin mattress and a sink with a single cold-water tap and a small table and seat that folds down from the wall. Yeah, they were pretty grim!
After a few hours we caught the ferry back to San Francisco and enjoyed further walks around Fisherman’s Walk and there was also time to go on the San Francisco Municipal Railway up those steep San Francisco hills. As we rode up the hill, I could hear a child enthusiastically asking his parents how these unique little machines worked. I decided to go right to the back so I could get the steep street on camera. They also gave us opportunities to take in the views and I could see back over the water to Alcatraz which we had toured earlier in the day. There was a guy dressed as a ghoul or a scary skeleton – I’m not sure which but we gave him a few dollars to have our photo taken with him as he placed his long-bony fingers around our shoulders. I thought it was great – the girls I was exploring the city with were not so keen!
To round off an exciting day in San Francisco we had a surprise Sunset Cruise to the Golden Gate Bridge on board Blue & Gold Fleet Ferries. The tour was 90-minutes in duration and took us past these gorgeous California sea lions. They were pretty awesome and like the elephant seals I had seen earlier in the trip provided both awe and amusement as they interacted with each other! It was great to get close to the Golden Gate Bridge and take some good photographs from a unique vantage point but the cruise also took us around Angel Island and past Alcatraz Island which I had enjoyed earlier in the day. As the sun set, we approached the Bay Bridge and were treated to the spectacular lights and the world’s largest LED light sculpture. There were people from another Trek America tour and so it was great to socialise with some other adventurers. It was still a bit choppy on the water due to the brisk wind and a rogue wave crashed against the boat drenching a traveller from the other Trek America tour in cold water!
It was a great way to end my time in San Francisco and I hope to go back there again in the future as there was still plenty more to see but unfortunately a night and a day was not a sufficient amount of time to see everything in more detail at a more leisurely pace. However, the time did provide some unique and lasting memories.
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