Dermott Brereton's first visit to San Francisco was in 1983. He was on a football team trip and there was plenty of partying at night and sleeping during the day. He really wanted to visit Alcatraz but it just didn't happen. Twenty-seven years later he got his wish.
Alcatraz, known as "The Rock", is a 15-minute boat ride away from San Francisco's famous Fisherman's Wharf. It's possibly the most touristy thing to do there with 5000 people taking the journey every day. Due to its popularity it's a good idea to buy your tickets well in advance.
Ferries start taking visitors across San Francisco Bay to Alcatraz every half hour starting at 9am. Views of the city and the Golden Gate Bridge are spectacular.
A different way to do it is after dark. Dermott boarded Hornblower Cruises' hybrid ferry at sunset. The ferry is the first of its type in America and is powered largely by solar panels, wind turbines and grid electricity. Carpet, countertops and fixtures incorporate recycled and sustainable materials.
Night tours are limited to a few hundred visitors and include programs, tours and activities not offered during the day. They start at 4.20pm and include guided and audio tours. No-one could ever tell the Alcatraz story better than the men who lived it.
The award-winning Alcatraz Cellhouse Audio Tour has brought history alive with voices of correctional officers and inmates who lived there during its infamous federal penitentiary era, but its history goes back well before then.
It was established as a military installation in 1850 and later became a military prison until 1933. In 1934 it became a federal prison and held such notable criminals as Al Capone, Robert Stroud (the subject of the film Birdman of Alcatraz) and Alvin Karpis who served more time there than any other inmate.
Then attorney-general Robert F Kennedy closed the penitentiary in 1963 as it was far more expensive to operate than other prisons. With 250 inmates and 60 Bureau of Prisons families living there, it was also polluting the bay so everything and everyone was relocated to a traditional land-bound prison.
In 1969 a group of Native Americans occupied the island proposing educational, ecology and cultural centres. Many buildings were destroyed or damaged and after 18 months of occupation the squatters were forced off. As a result of the occupation a policy of self-determination was established in 1970 and today Native American groups hold ceremonies there.
During its 29 years of operation, no successful escapes were recorded. All 36 attempts resulted in the would-be escapees being recaptured, shot dead or drowning in the freezing San Francisco Bay. Five are unaccounted for listed as "missing, presume drowned".
The Clint Eastwood film Escape from Alcatraz stirred up the endless fascination with stories about The Rock. The film saw inmates making fake heads to put in their beds so when wardens checked it looked as though they were sleeping. Instead they were busy tunnelling.
They climbed above the cell block, made a raft from raincoats, shimmied down pipes and entered the water, never to be seen again. To this day the debate continues and experts say they didn't make it.
Dermott's tour leader, Ranger John Cantwell, agrees with the experts, but if they are all wrong, the escapees would be in their eighties now and authorities would love to hear from them if they're out there somewhere!
John is a National Park Service guide and has been conducting tours for more than 20 years. He takes tours to seldom-seen areas of the island and describes the attempted escapes, The Battle of '46, food riots and surviving solitary confinement in great detail.
The cells are chillingly small: 1.5m wide and 2.7m deep was where they spent 23 hours a day. The only time they left was for 20 minutes three times a day for meals in the mess hall. Just 23 seconds made Dermott feel claustrophobic and the sound of a 115kg door closing on him was enough to make his blood curdle.
Dermott had a few helpful things to pass on.
- You must have a photo ID.
- Bags no larger than a standard backpack are permitted.
- Children under 18 must be accompanied by an adult.
- To avoid crowds, visit during the winter months of January to March. The best weather is during April and May or September and October. Oddly, summer can mean cold and foggy weather around the island.
Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay.
Alcatraz Cruises have 2.5-hour tours departing Alcatraz Landing Pier 33. Night tours are $40 and $24 for children. Ferry transportation, entry to Alcatraz and cellhouse audio tour are included, and the tours operate all year round.
V Australia has flights to Los Angeles with connections to San Francisco from:
- Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane $1139
- Adelaide $1439
- Perth $1739
Sales and validity dates apply.
Prices correct at June 24, 2010.
For further information
Hornblower Alcatraz Cruises
Ph: +1 415 981 7625
For further information on Alcatraz
Visas: Most Australians do not need a visa, providing they have a machine-readable passport with at least six months' validity after the departure day, have a round-trip non-refundable ticket and do not intend to stay longer than 90 days. Australians need to complete a pre-travel authorisation at www.cbp.gov/esta.
Electricity: 110V to 115V at 60Hz. Outlets take two-parallel, flat prongs. Australian visitors will need a US adapter and converter.
Time zone: San Francisco is GMT-8.
Currency: The American dollar.
International dialling code: +1.