The Old Fogies go to Alcatraz in San Francisco

One of San Francisco’s main attractions is the island of Alcatraz that sits in San Francisco Bay. To get to the island, visitors must take one of the tours that visit Alcatraz. The tours depart from Pier 33 located along San Francisco’s northern waterfront promenade near the Embarcadero, It advisable to arrive early as the queues begin to form to board the ferry and you need to go through airport style security. We booked the tour through the official Alcatraz Cruises website, if you thinking about going to Alcatraz be wary of tours that charge a large amount to go to Alcatraz and maybe a cruise around the harbour.

For some reason, swarms of flies descended on the ferry as we boarded and were unwelcome travellers all the way across to the Island. For most people, Alcatraz is associated with the prison but the Island has a long history of human habitation.

There is evidence that the first people to visit Alcatraz Island were indigenous people who arrived there between 10,000 and 20,000 years ago. 

The first lighthouse on the West Coast of the United States was built on Alcatraz and went into service in 1854. At roughly the same time a military fort was on the Island which during American Civil War became the largest American fort west of the Mississippi River.

It was during the American Civil War that the first convicts were sent to Alcatraz fort, gradually the fort became less known for its defence capabilities and more for its military prison.

The army transferred Alcatraz to the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) in 1934 and the BOP quickly converted the military prison into a maximum-security civilian penitentiary.  It is the period from 1934 to 1963 which is the focus of the tour when Alcatraz became one of the most famous federal prisons in United States history.

When you arrive on the Island, you are shown to shower room where you pick up the excellent audio tour which gives some background to the tour. The audio includes contributions from old inmates and warders from the prison and tells some of the stories about some of America’s most notorious offenders.

One of the reasons for Alcatraz’s reputation was that it was considered a prison that dealt with inmates that were sent from other federal prisons. “The Rock” was where the most troublesome prisoners were sent to be dealt with before they could be returned to a lower-security institution. 

Some of the most famous inmates were Al ‘Scarface’ Capone and Robert Stroud otherwise known as the ‘Birdman of Alcatraz’. Walking around the prison, you wander around the cells in the different parts of the prison and listen to some inmates describing the monotonous regime and how some tried to escape. Over the 29 years from 1934 to 1963, 36 men were involved in 14 separate escape attempts. Of these, 23 were caught, 6 were shot and killed during their escape, and 2 drowned. There is no evidence that anyone escaped the “Rock” and survived. One of the most notorious escapes was the “Battle of Alcatraz” in 1946.

Strangely, considering its reputation it was not the worst location in the world with the sights and sounds of San Francisco all around. Many prisoners remarked that this made their incarceration more unbearable.

After the tour of the prison, visitors can wander around the Island and see some of the buildings and structures from the different periods of occupation. Now and again you see signs related to when a group of Native American Indians claimed Alcatraz as Indian land in 1969, their occupancy was relatively short-lived when they were removed from the Island by Federal Marshals in 1971.

The tour of Alcatraz is a fascinating reminder of a particular chapter of United States history, it is a history in which fact and myths are interchangeable probably due to the many films and books that have been written about the “Rock”.

Old Fogies Travels are the adventures of two elderly Londoners (The Old Fogies) as they explore their home town and travel around the world looking out for the strange, unusual and absurd.

Our articles are published on our blog but also listed on the website of our friends at Visiting London Guide.com here.

 

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The Old Fogies take a ride on a San Francisco Cable Car

One of San Francisco’s unique attractions is the cable cars that trundle up and down the steep hills. The San Francisco cable car system is the world’s last manually operated cable car system and is used by 7 million annual passengers each year.

Twenty three cable car lines were established between 1873 and 1890, however only three lines remain. Two of the routes travel between Union Square to Fisherman’s Wharf, and a third route goes along California Street.

The cable cars are very popular with visitors to the city and often towards the end of the lines, large queues form. Locals often move a few stops to jump on the cars but we were determined to have a ride from one end of the line to the other to experience a unique way of travelling through the heart of San Francisco. Also the rather expensive fare of $7 is the same for a short ride or the full ride and the longer ride is much better value for money.

After looking around Fisherman’s Wharf, we made our way to the Taylor Street and Bay Street terminal to take a trip on the Powell – Mason line of the system and joined the queue. Part of the fun whilst waiting is watching the workers manually pushing the turntables to reverse the cars.

The cable cars a relic of a bygone age and have a rather antiquated system, the cars are pulled by a cable running below the street. To start and stop the car, the gripman closes and opens the grip around the cable. To prevent the cable cars running away, they use three separate braking systems operated by the gripman and the conductor. The gripman stands in the middle of the car and the conductor stands at the back.

There are three ways to travel in the cars, sitting inside, sitting outside on benches and for the brave, standing on the running board. We decided to try the sitting outside on the benches.

The cables cars travel relatively slowly and are an ideal way to watch the daily life on the San Francisco streets and the various districts as you trundle along. The hills of San Francisco are incredibly steep in some areas and travelling on the cable car is the nearest thing you can get to riding a roller coaster through a city.

The San Francisco cable car system is unique and most visitors ride the cars at least once. They maybe the transport of a bygone age but they are still incredibly popular with locals and visitors.

Old Fogies Travels are the adventures of two elderly Londoners (The Old Fogies) as they explore their home town and travel around the world looking out for the strange, unusual and absurd.

Our articles are published on our blog but also listed on the website of our friends at Visiting London Guide.com here.

The Old Fogies go to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge

Unlike Sydney Harbour Bridge which is in the middle of the city, San Francisco’s iconic Golden Gate Bridge is around four miles from Fisherman’s Wharf in the centre of San Francisco. Therefore riding a bicycle down and across the bridge is very popular with a number of cycle hire places doing a brisk business.

We decided to take a walk down to the bridge and enjoy views from a number of vantage points. The bridge has a fascinating history and has become one of the most famous bridges in the United States.

The Golden Gate Bridge is a suspension bridge which spans the Golden Gate, the one-mile-wide (1.6 km) strait that connects San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean. Before the bridge the only way across the strait was by ferry. Earlier plans for a bridge across the strait were dismissed due to the costs, deep water and extreme weather conditions.

However, money was raised and construction began 1933 and was completed in 1937. The bridge cost around $35 million and great celebrations took place when it finally opened to the public, on the day before vehicle traffic was allowed, it was estimated that 200,000 people crossed the bridge on foot.  

Remarkably, despite quite extreme weather condition at times, since its completion, the Golden Gate Bridge has been closed because of weather conditions only three times in 1951, 1982 and 1983.

At the time of its opening in 1937, it was both the longest and the tallest suspension bridge in the world, with a main span of 4,200 feet (1,280 m) and a total height of 746 feet (227 m) and although other bridges have now surpassed the Golden Gate Bridge it remains one of the most beautiful bridges in the world.

Part of its appeal is the way that the bridge complements the natural surroundings and blends into environment. Although the bridge looks red, the colour of the bridge is officially an orange vermilion.

The bridge can be admired from afar but for a closer look it is worth entering the fascinating Fort Point National Historical site which is located underneath the bridge. Rangers point out some of the interesting facts about this Civil War fortification before you climb to the top of the structure to get great views of the bridge, the harbour and the Pacific Ocean.

Although the bridge is primarily for vehicle traffic, it is also popular with pedestrians and bicyclists who arrive in their thousands especially at the weekend. Unfortunately the bridge holds another record, the Golden Gate Bridge is the second-most used suicide bridge in the world, and an estimated 1,500 people have fallen to their deaths from the structure.  

Old Fogies Travels are the adventures of two elderly Londoners (The Old Fogies) as they explore their home town and travel around the world looking out for the strange, unusual and absurd.

Our articles are published on our blog but also listed on the website of our friends at Visiting London Guide.com here.

The Old Fogies go to San Francisco – Part Two

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Before we started our trip, we had booked a whale watching trip around San Francisco Bay, we had always thought of trying one of these tours and the San Francisco tour was very reasonably priced. As we boarded the small vessel, our expectations were not that high but thought it would a nice trip out into the bay. The heavy mist and fog in the bay shrouded the city and the Golden Gate Bridge creating an eerie atmosphere as we made our way out into the bay.

Almost immediately, a shout went out and everyone rushed forward and peered into the distance and remarkably there was a humpback whale breaking the surface. What followed was almost three hours of sightings of humpbacks all across the bay.

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The Whale expert on board provided a commentary as the whales surfaced and dived, the boat was careful to keep a reasonable distance from the whales but nobody told the whales as one surfaced around twenty feet from the boat which shocked everyone and especially me who nearly dropped my camera, so I did not get that close up view. Thankfully our expert did get that shot which we publish below.

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Photo Whalegirl.org

Every now and again when you are travelling, you have that magical day that will stay with you for the rest of your life, our Whale Watching was one such day.

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The following day we followed a more traditional tourist path by visiting one of San Francisco’s main attractions, the island of Alcatraz. The tours leave Pier 33 and it advisable to arrive early as the queues begin to form to board the ferry. We had booked through the official Alcatraz Cruises website, if you thinking about going to Alcatraz be wary of tours that charge a large amount to go to Alcatraz and maybe a cruise around the harbour.

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For some reason, swarms of flies descended on the ferry as we boarded and were unwelcome travellers all the way across to the Island. Alcatraz became a military prison in 1907 and a maximum security penitentiary in 1934 and became part of American mythology because of the many films that have been made about the prison. When you arrive on the Island, you are shown to cell houses where you pick up the excellent audio tour which gives some background to the tour. Strangely, considering its reputation it was not the worst location in the world with the sights and sounds of San Francisco all around.

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That said, Block D where the most rebellious prisoners were sent is pretty grim and some of the stories from ex-prisoners suggest a violent environment at times. Outside of the prison is a variety of buildings, some that date back to when it was a military base in the 19th century.

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Another of the main attractions of San Francisco is the cable cars that trundle up the steepest hills. They maybe a relic of a bygone age, but they are very popular with long queues at certain junctions. There are three ways to travel in the cars, sitting inside, sitting outside on benches and for the brave, standing on the running board.

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Fares are quite expensive at $7, therefore if you want value for money do not use for short journeys but travel the entire route. When you do this you will see the cable car in all its glory, in some sections it is like a roller coaster moving up and down the hills. It is a major operation controlling the cable cars with a grip man and a conductor, it is entertaining watching the various manoeuvres and the way they turn the cars around at the turntables.

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On our final day in San Francisco, we thought we would travel on the bus to Golden Gate Park which is really not that close to the bridge but is one of the largest parks in the city. The bus ride took us through the former hippie enclave of Haight Ashbury which was a focal point of the Summer of Love in the 1960s. A few shops try to trade on its bohemian past and a few locals and visitors try to recreate the time by dressing up in their hippie gear.

When we arrived at the park, we thought we had been transported back into the sixties, with the smell of drugs and someone playing their bongo drums to a small stoned audience. This area of the park is called Hippie Hill and tends to attract an alternative crowd.

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This area is in complete contrast with the other parts of the park which is the location of the de Young Museum, a Shakespeare Garden, Botanical Gardens, a Dutch Windmill and a Japanese Tea Garden.

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When it was time to leave San Francisco, we thought we had only scratched the surface of an attractive and fascinating city. On the whole, the locals were very friendly but like many cities, San Francisco has a problem with the homeless and beggars especially around the Union Square area. Whilst some were quite inventive by having signs that read ‘ Money wanted for Weed, Why lie About It.’ Others had some severe mental health problems and needed attention that they clearly were not receiving.

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Another issue for travellers is the public transport system that is a mixture of mainly BART trains, buses, street cars and cable cars. The complex system is not easy to navigate and makes getting around the city quite difficult. Taxis are generally available and are sometimes the better option for short distances.

Old Fogies Travels are the adventures of two elderly Londoners (The Old Fogies) as they explore their home town and travel around the world looking out for the strange, unusual and absurd.

Our articles are published on our blog but also listed on the website of our friends at Visiting London Guide.com here.

The Old Fogies go to San Francisco – Part One

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After the rather sedate charms of Auckland it was time to move on to the United States and face the long flight to San Francisco. Anyone who is thinking about going to the States should be aware that it is often a complicated business nowadays. Before our trip, we went on the various websites to fill a variety of forms before being authorised to enter the country. Nevertheless, stories about long queues and people being refused entry for various reasons fill the newspapers. Therefore it was with some trepidation that we approached the customs and presented our documents, after being finger printed and questioned about how long we were staying in the country, we finally made it into the country.

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We had spent most of the day which was the 16th September in Auckland before we took the 11 hour flight to San Francisco, however because of the vagaries of time differences, we arrived in San Francisco in the afternoon of the 16th, meaning we would have roughly a 36 hour day.

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We decided to use the BART Train from the airport to Embarcadero Station and then get a taxi to the hotel which was situated on Nob Hill overlooking the city. Arriving at the station, we knew the hotel was not far away, so I suggested walking. Mrs Nice looked quizzically and said ‘ have you seen the hills.’ I replied yes but this way is quite flat and we should OK.

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Most couples will know that on holidays that one person can make a suggestion that seems reasonable but ends up disastrously. Well this was one of those occasions, the hills began to get steeper and the cases got heavier as we pushed on, but there was no turning back now as I said ‘it is just around the corner.’ Unfortunately around the corner was the steepest part and we struggled to the top, ‘that was not too bad’ I joked before looking at Mrs Nice’s red face and realising that she was not in a joking mood.

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Has I had shown, it is very easy to underestimate the hills of San Francisco and when we walked around the Nob Hill district, you did get a clear idea that this was not going to be a gentle stroll kind of place. Our hotel gave us a room overlooking the San Francisco skyline which is interesting rather than spectacular. The hotel was large with long corridors which reminded me of the Eagles song ‘Hotel California’ and especially the line ‘ this could be heaven or this could be hell’. The hotel was not heaven but it was well run with a laid back approach with gentle rock music playing in the lift and communal areas.

The following day, we decided to walk down the hill through Chinatown to Fisherman’s Wharf which is one of the main tourist attractions of San Francisco harbour. Unlike many other cities, San Francisco’s Chinatown covers quite a large area around Grant Avenue, it is one of the oldest Chinatowns in the United States and one of the most interesting with a number of old buildings as well as the more modern gift shops and restaurants.

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Fisherman’s Wharf and especially Pier 39 is like an old seaside resort with plenty of places to eat and drink. There are also a number of tourist attractions like the Aquarium of the Bay, Madame Tussauds and the Maritime National Historical Park with a range of old vessels. One more unusual aspects of Pier 39 is the large number of sea lions basking on the wooden boards in front of the pier. The sound of sea-lions snoring filled the air as the crowds gather around and take photographs.

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Unlike Sydney Harbour Bridge which is in the middle of city, San Francisco’s iconic Golden Gate Bridge is around four miles from Fisherman’s Wharf. Riding a bicycle down and across the bridge is very popular with a number of cycle hire places doing brisk business.

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We decided we wanted a closer look at the bridge, but thought we would not walk the whole distance. So we began our walk from Fisherman’s Wharf passing Ghirardelli Square, Boudin Bakery, The Cannery before following the shoreline to the Aquatic park where it is safe to swim or paddle.

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Fort Mason is a redeveloped old Civil War era Military base, the very attractive Crissy Field is reclaimed wetlands where the local population come down for a barbecue on Sundays. We were so fascinated by these aspects of the walk that before we knew it we were at the Presidio area which takes you right up to the bridge itself.

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Arriving at the bridge, we stopped for an ice cream and went into the fascinating Fort Point National Historical site which is located underneath the bridge. Rangers point out some of the interesting facts about this Civil War fortification before you climb to the top of the structure to get great views of the bridge, the harbour and the Pacific Ocean.

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Old Fogies Travels are the adventures of two elderly Londoners (The Old Fogies) as they explore their home town and travel around the world looking out for the strange, unusual and absurd.

Our articles are published on our blog but also listed on the website of our friends at Visiting London Guide.com here.