Wednesday, March 23, 2016

USA 2015: Night Tour of Alcatraz

photo taken while we were riding the ferry to Alcatraz

"It's mighty good to get up and leave. This Rock ain't good for nobody." 
- Frank Weatherman, last con to leave (1963)

And yet, a decade after its closing, The Rock became one of the most popular and most visited attractions in San Francisco. People were curious about how life was inside the notorious prison. Tourists wanted to see for themselves how the prisoners supposedly successfully escaped from America's premier maximum-security prison in its time. Some, on the other hand, were simply mesmerized admiring it from afar specially on a foggy day (I knew I was).

The last time we were in San Francisco we were not able to visit Alcatraz because the tours were fully booked. This time around we made sure that we booked way ahead of time. 

Here are some info about and our experiences during our visit to Alcatraz....

Location: 1.25 miles offshore from San Francisco, CA 94133, United States

How to get there: There is only one way to reach the island and that is via ferry operated by Alcatraz Cruises. Located at Pier 33 along The Embarcadero, it isn't difficult to find. Parking though is another story. There is no parking at the pier and street parking is metered (time may be insufficient for your visit to the island). Commercial parking lots are available but prices are steep (US$6 per hour or more!). We decided we'd leave the car at the hotel and walk all the way to Pier 33. It was the perfect time for a walk in the city with the cool breeze at the end of Autumn.

Tours and Fees: Tours can be booked in this link: There are basically 4 tours to choose from (costs as of March 2016):

  1. Early Bird - first trip of the day, leaving Pier 33 at 845am. For those who want to explore with less crowd. Includes Audio Tour. Daily departures available. Cost US$33 for adults.
  2. Day Tour (AM & PM) - visitors get to experience the Cell House and explore the island. Includes Audio Tour. Daily departures available. Cost US$33 for adults.
  3. Night Tour - the most complete tour which includes Audio Tour, on-board narration, guided tour, and other special tour activities. Promises a more intimate and engaging Alcatraz experience PLUS the breathtaking view of San Francisco at night. Departures from Thursdays to Mondays only. Cost US$40 for adults.
  4. Alcatraz and Angel Island tour - for those who want to explore the two islands, this is the perfect choice. Includes Audio Tour. Cost US$66.75.
The first 3 tour options take approximately 2.5 hours while the last one takes 5.5 hours. A comparison table of the tours is available on the website.

We chose to get the Night Tour as it was the most comprehensive among the four. The ferry departure at 350pm gave us enough time to explore the other city attractions in the first half of the day and the walk to Pier 33. It cost us US$38 for adult tickets, US$37 for a junior ticket and US$22.75 for a child ticket. The updated fees and ferry departure timings can be viewed in this link:

The email confirmation includes tickets which may be printed. Alternatively, you can pick up your tickets at the Alcatraz Cruises Ticket office at Pier 33 before departure. If you are visiting during peak season though, I recommend printing your tickets at home to avoid long queues. In our case, we printed our tickets at home but also picked up our tickets at the pier as I plan to use them for our USA road trip scrapbook.

The Experience: Our journey to Alcatraz began with a ferry ride which included on-board narration. What I like about tours with narration is I get to know more about the place I am visiting. What I don't like about on-board narration is that sometimes it is difficult to hear what the narrator is talking about with people chatting plus the ferry noise. Nevertheless, we enjoyed our ferry ride as we slowly moved farther away from the city and closer to the island.

As the ferry got closer, the island was shrouded in fog. It added to the mystical appeal of the island. Who wouldn't be tempted not to take a snapshot of it and with it?

The ferry took us around the island before docking so we had a 360-view. The cool afternoon breeze, and I'm pretty sure the eerie feel of finally setting foot on the island, 
gave us chills.
Alcatraz with San Francisco in the background 
One by one we disembarked and were led by our tour guide to the first official stop of the Alcatraz tour: The Ranger Office/First Aid.
everyone gathered in front of this building (the Barracks/Apartments) for the introduction to Alcatraz
living proof of the time when the Native American Indians inhabited the island
After the brief historical introduction (and instructions to where the restrooms were), we were divided into groups which were led up to the Cellhouse by our respective tour guides. Walking up there can be challenging because of the steep slopes.  
We stopped after making a turn after the Electric Repair Shop for a breather and some commentaries before making the final ascent to the Cellhouse entrance.

an unexpected but welcome sight in this island

This big display was what welcomed us upon entering the Cellhouse. "Break the rules, you go to prison; break the prison rules and you go to Alcatraz." Now who wouldn't be scared of that?! At the background, a recording from the past brought us back to when this place was inhabited by criminals. It was really like stepping into history, observing and listening to what happened during those times.
this was the shower area where new prisoners were stripped off their clothes and belongings,
and cleaned up before their official admission into the prison cells
We were each given our gadgets for the Audio Tour and there we were left to wander on our own, following where the Audio Tour led us.
here were photos of the correctional officers who were also the narrators in the audio tour.
How apt that these men who were in-charge of the prison and its residents be the ones
who guide visitors along each Cell Block, corridor and hall? If there were anyone in the know
about what went in and out of Alcatraz, it was them.
our first glimpse of the cell blocks, as close as we good ever get to one
small, cramped and some cells don't even have beds in them!
while the others move to the next cell block, we stayed a while for a photo op
at the Time Square which led to the Dining Hall.
The boys were wondering how the metal detector functioned then
this cell was not that cramped at all. It could fit the 4 of us standing with still some room
to walk about and even run around (in Ira's case).
this was the library where prisoners can borrow books and keep themselves occupied
a great lookout point, just in time for sunset overlooking the golden horizon
this is the Dining Hall, walls and ceiling of which were lined with gas canisters in case of riots

These were cells of some notoriously famous criminals. Some had the privilege of painting.

a small peeping hole where prisoners could look out to the city.
Ira remembered that it was a way for the inmates to celebrate New Year's Day 
by looking out this window to see the fireworks.
It probably brought heartache to those longing to go back to their loved ones.
It probably made them regret doing the crimes they have committed.
Just maybe.....
this is where prisoners go when family members visit them.
A small window that separates them from their loved ones.
the Control Room which leads to the outdoors.
And what awaits outdoors?
a wider, better view of the city across the bay
what a beautiful sight indeed
We took several family photos as the night sky grew darker and the breeze got colder. We had to put our audio tour on pause while we soak in the atmosphere outside the Cellhouse.
When we got back inside, Ira was all to eager to see what else remained to be seen. He walked ahead of us, seriously listening and following where the audio tour took him. We had to stop and synchronize often as I was lagging behind and my husband way behind me.

looking at the line up of famous inmates
Now, on to the more interesting part of the tour. The how and where of the famous escape from Alcatraz.
the key which the inmates used to open up locks
their escape route to the rooftop
Ira called on me from afar to show me this (he was the first one to see it).
By the time the other visitors passed by, the lights have already been turned off.
inch by inch, night after night, the inmates painstakingly carved a hole in this prison cell wall
We will always wonder whatever had happened to those inmates who had escaped then. Had they drowned as speculated? Had they made it across the bay and lived, unnoticed, amongst the city-dwellers? I guess we will never know.

But one this is for sure, we had an enlightening, brought-chills-to-our-spines, experience at Alcatraz. The Night Tour is highly recommended. Maybe next time we will try the normal tour so we can explore the island's flora and fauna. After all, it has been declared as a National Park years after being closed down as a prison.

after our dose of history and mystery in the island,
we were off for a night walk at Pier 39 on the way back to our hotel

What we will remember the most about our tour of THE ROCK:
  • The view of San Francisco from the ferry as we sailed to the island
  • The view of San Francisco from Alcatraz as it lighted up at night
  • The view of Alcatraz as it was slowly enveloped by the fog
  • The eerie feeling as we walked along the hallways of the different cell blocks where notorious criminals in American history were incarcerated and listened to the narrations of the prison guards. It's just haunting.
  • The feeling of being a prisoner, even for just a few hours. It sure does make a point to the boys. NEVER do anything that puts you in a prison cell.

Travel tips when going on the tour to Alcatraz:

  • Wear comfortable shoes. There will be a lot of walking. 
  • Bring snacks and water. You will get hungry.
  • If you are travelling with your kids, make sure you are in the same pace when following the audio tour. If you want to stay longer in a specific area remember to put the audio tour on pause. That's what's good about audio tours. You don't need to follow the crowd at their pace.
  • If you want to bring home souvenirs from the Alcatraz tourist shop and you are taking the Night Tour, make sure to stop by before it closes. I was so disappointed to find out the shop was already closed when we were making our way out. I guess made the most of our "time inside" that we lost track of time. 

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