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Thursday 25 July 2024

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Escape to Alcatraz for a superb day of American penitentiary history

Alcatraz island, America's notorious penitentiary

It sulks, brooding across the bay. The clouds, dark and impendent, sit like gods around its perimeter; gods whose charge it is to let nothing in or out. The black, lapping water foreshadows untold terrors apt to befall any who would dare to harbour an endeavour to penetrate this fortress’s ’mail. Shadowy wings mimicking Pterosauria circle menacingly overhead. Better that you turn your back and walk away now than entertain any thought of going out there.

Such is the impression created by the former island gaol of Alcatraz as you view it at the dusk of a squally day from the safety of Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco Bay. Filled with fear and fascination, you determine to discover its mysteries first hand. Tomorrow is the day.

Of course, as you approach the landing at Pier 33 in sunshine the following morning, all the previous day’s forebodings seem utterly ridiculous. Alcatraz looks perfectly innocuous basking in yellow light, and you look forward with renewed vigour to the adventures that await. You board your craft and begin the half hour trip out to the notorious island.

Disembarking your vessel of conveyance, you cannot fail to experience the sense of awe that comes from setting foot on such an historic site. Since it opened as a federal penitentiary in 1934, ‘the Rock’ became home to some of America’s most infamous criminals, including Al ‘Scarface’ Capone and Birdman Robert Stroud, right up until its being decommissioned in 1963.

For those who seek to immerse themselves in the history of this most legendary of prisons, disappointment will not make an appearance. To simply wander around the island itself would be reward enough for one’s efforts, but the experience goes way above and far beyond, allowing access to the cell blocks and main buildings, recreation yard and grounds, all exquisitely enhanced by audio and video presentations. But Alcatraz offers so much more, being a home to rare flowers and plants, marine wildlife and thousands of roosting and nesting sea birds.

Scattered haphazardly around are 19th century buildings from the time of Civil War, when the island served as both a harbour defence fort and a military gaol.

Traces of the American Indian Occupation, which began in 1969 once the prison had closed, are still visibly evident, and stand in testimony to a milestone in the rights movement, and provide yet another rich perspicacity into US history.

The day done, all that remains is your return trip to the mainland and, as the sun dips, caressing its orange fingers over the lonely island, a deep sense of satisfaction can be felt deep in your heart. As the delicious delights of discovery dance enticingly in your memory, you are blessed yet further with the most stunning and romantic view of the city skyline and Golden Gate Bridge, as your craft floats dreamlike towards the berth whence you departed so many hours ago.

You can make the trip to the Rock with several reputable companies; we used the excellent Alcatraz Cruises. Booking prior to arrival is strongly recommended.

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