When I planned my trip to California, I had to make sure to leave time to spend a full day with my amazing friend Faith. She's one of the coolest people I know, and so I'd never confessed to her my burning desire to visit Alcatraz Island, a.k.a The Rock, a.k.a. the most touristy destination in all of San Francisco. Imagine my surprise, then, when Faith herself suggested we take the ferry out to Alcatraz on Monday afternoon! Turns out she'd never been, either, and we decided it was just the thing to do.
We booked on Sunday night (though, if you're going during the summer or on a weekend, I recommend booking at least a couple of weeks in advance) and boarded the 1:10 ferry on Monday afternoon. It was a gray, drizzly day - very atmospheric, and very bad for the hair.
Very few of the buildings on the island have been fully restored, which gives the place a crumbling, slowly-returning-to-nature feel. Lots of rust, crumbling masonry and creeping, misty greenery gives it a slightly abandoned air. The island has been continuously occupied since the mid-nineteenth century, first as a fort, then as a military prison, and finally as the infamous federal penitentiary, home to Robert Stroud and Al Capone, among others.
Everyone I talked to about Alcatraz had the same recommendation: take the audio tour. They were absolutely right. While audio tours can sometimes be a cheesy undertaking, Alcatraz's is narrated by a group of former guards and inmates, and is seriously interesting. In fact, it's almost too academic - I was kind of hoping for ghost stories and general creepiness, but got mostly hard-boiled narrations. It was like Raymond Chandler wrote the script himself.
One of my favorite bits of trivia came at the end of the audio tour, in the dining hall. The knives were hung on a board painted with their silhouettes, which reminded me of Julia Child's iconic pegboard. Of course, in this case, the utility of the silhouette was a bit different; ease of access wasn't the issue. Being able to quickly spot a missing knife - potentially stolen by an inmate - was.
The most unexpected thing about Alcatraz, for me, was the beauty of the island itself. I absolutely loved the different textures and states of decay to be found all over the place, and couldn't get enough of the succulent gardens (originally planted by the families of the guards who lived on-island in the 1950s and 1960s). (To see all of my photos from the day, click on over to my Flickr account.)
The weather was a bit spotty, but we were lucky enough to have a few fog-free moments to view the beautiful San Francisco skyline through the mist. If there's a city that does more to marry architecture with its unique geography, I've yet to visit it.