[Part 1] Up at 7:00 AM like the sun. After a shower, we headed down to the street for a coffee at a local shop, and then to nearby Union Square where we found the Powell-Hyde cable car line. A one way ticket is a steep $5, but a three-day passport is only $20. So as long as we could take two round trips in three days, it would be worth it to buy the passport. Boy, did we ever get our money’s worth out of that! Several times we took the cable car just to take it. We love walking through cities, but there’s a point where you’re glad someone thought to pull trains along underground cables.
At the end of the Powell-Hyde line, we found ourselves at Fisherman’s Wharf. The sun was shining and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, so we decided, what the heck, let’s walk over to the Golden Gate Bridge waaaay over there on the horizon!
Google Maps reports the distance as only 6 km (3.7 miles), but much of that was uphill and it felt considerably longer. I was in my dress shoes after a shoe malfunction earlier in the trip, and by the time we got to the first tower on the bridge, we were satisfied that we’d had enough. Actually being on the bridge is pretty similar to walking beside a major motorway; lots of fast cars and noise.
A trash can tripod shot on Crissy Field on the way to The Bridge.
Beach, pier, and The Rock.
Look, I’ve got the Golden Gate Bridge in my hand!
On the way there we found this awesome video telescope, which reads:
The steel suspension cables on the Golden Gate Bridge change in length in response to temperature, causing the Bridge span to rise and fall like a thermometer.
It shows a live shot of the bridge and shows the places where it is at minimum and maximum temperatures. Very geeky and very awesome.
A panorama looking back down over Crissy Field to the San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz, and the San Francisco skyline. You can see what lovely weather we had.
On the Golden Gate Bridge!
Marga was there, too.
The towers were truly massive.
That there’s a lotta bolts!
A sailboat passed down below.
We didn’t want to walk the whole way back, so we tried to make it to the closest bus stop, which was down past the Palace of Fine Arts and into a seriously posh neighborhood of families with unfathomable income.
It wasn’t until I boarded the #30 bus that I realized that all the buses in San Francisco are electric, emissions free, and run on wires suspended over the streets by a dazzlingly complicated feat of engineering. Immediately I noticed how nice it was to not have “that bus smell” everywhere like most cities do. Bravo, San Francisco!
The Christmas tree at Pier 39 was slightly on the ginormous side. That’s Marga there in front of it.
Before boarding the bus, we bought two sandwiches, a pack of chips, and a beer. When we arrived to Fisherman’s Wharf, we had to walk, much to the chagrin of my feet, all the way down to Pier 33 to investigate Alcatraz tour tickets. By chance, we were fifteen minutes early for the last afternoon ferry. Later there’s a night tour that I think, frankly, would creep me right out. We didn’t have any idea how long the tour would take, but we bought tickets ($26 each) and boarded the ferry, eating our sandwiches and drinking our beer as we puttered across the bay.
We disembarked on Alcatraz, a.k.a. The Rock, and joined the throng that was gathered in front of a woman explaining about how to get around the island and when the ferries leave going back to mainland. She was very professional, and her speech was clean and polished, with appropriate bits of humor, e.g. “Please don’t go into the restricted areas unless you’d like to see the inside of a working prison today.”
We entered the guards’ barracks and watched a bit of a documentary about the island, which included interviews with some of the children that grew up there. Yes, the families of the guards lived on the island, and the kids that lived there all say they remember it being an idyllic childhood, and they especially liked taking the ferry to and from school everyday. Another salient fact from the video was that the watchtower guards were locked in the tower, from the outside, for the duration of their eight-hour shift, only set free when the next guard came to take over. I guess that’s one way to guarantee that there’s always someone in the tower.
When you enter the cell block, there’s a sign with a chilling quotation on it:
If you break the rules, you go to prison. If you break the prison rules, you go to Alcatraz.
Then it was up the hill and into the cell block, where we picked up audio tour headsets, which were free (i.e. included). My friend Jeff had particularly recommended the audio tour, and I was keen to see what it was like. Even with my high expectations, I was totally blown away by how amazing the audio tour was. It was fantastic! The way it moved you around reminded me of a first-person-shooter video game in training mode, e.g. “In front of you you will see a door labeled [something]. Go through it and look at the poster on the right.” Many of the voices on the audio tour were actual prisoners and guards from Alcatraz. The best parts, however, were when there were sound effects that made the space around you come alive. For instance, it walks you into the solitary confinement cell, tells you to close your eyes, then put your hand over your eyes to block out all light, and then a prisoner’s voice comes on.
When you’re in the hole, you’ve gotta find some way to occupy your mind. I would pull a button off my prison uniform [RIP!], stand in the middle of the cell, and throw it up in the air. [TINK, Tink, tink, tink, tink…] Then I’d get down on all fours and search around trying to find it. [a hand rubbing against a concrete floor] When I found it, I’d stand up and do it all over again.
I truly cannot sing enough praise about the Alcatraz audio tour. It’s the top thing I’d recommend you do when you visit San Francisco, and I’m personally not all that interested in prisons.
“For your safety, please stay out of the shower area.”
The prisoners were forced to take hot showers. No cold showers allowed. This was because they didn’t want anyone to habituate themselves to cold water with ideas of escape.
Marga was positively giddy with enjoyment of the tour.
Cell block in the afternoon light.
This was one of the cells where they separated you if you behaved badly, but it was one of the bigger cells, and a prisoner on the tape said that the afternoon sunlight was absolutely cherished.
Most of the cells were empty, but a few of them were decorated as they might have been, with products frozen in time from 1961.
Popular Mechanics, August, 1961. “World’s Safest Plane?” “Now add sound to your 8-mm movies!”
The San Francisco skyline, as seen from inside Alcatraz. Being able to see the lively free city every day made incarceration at Alcatraz even more torturous. One prisoner on the audio tape said that, if the wind was just right on New Year’s Eve, they could hear the merriment 1.5 miles away on Fisherman’s Wharf.
The time flew by on our tour, and soon we were within minutes of the last ferry of the evening, so we headed down to the docks, disappointed that we hadn’t known Alcatraz would be so interesting; otherwise we would’ve come with three hours to spend instead of just 90 minutes.
Having escaped from Alcatraz and made it across the frigid bay to the mainland, albeit by ferry, we did some casual strolling around Pier 39, the biggest tourist attraction on Fisherman’s Wharf. We entered the pier thinking, “Let’s see what’s down here,” not knowing the sheer immensity of the attraction we were entering. We stopped for a happy-hour beer at a restaurant called Fog Harbor, which turned out to be the prettiest, most picturesque dining we found in San Francisco. We vowed to return there for dinner later in the week.
Just a small fraction of the tourist trap awesomeness that is Pier 39.
Looking in the window at one of the better tables in Fog Harbor.
Then it was on to Scoma’s, a seafood restaurant recommended to us by our friends Jeff and Jane. I splurged for the Oysters Rockefeller as a starter and the exorbitantly priced Lobster Tail. Marga spoke first to the waiter, who picked up on her accent and asked where she was from. He proudly stated that he spoke Spanish and switched languages. About 60% of the way through the meal, the waiter comes up to me and says, “I was just listening to you, and you speak very good English!” I confessed my nationality, and he switched his flattery to my second tongue. “I had no idea! I thought you were Spanish too!” At this point, Marga pipes up and tells the obviously latino waiter that he clearly struggles a little with his Spanish. This opens the floodgates of his life story, born in San Francisco to Mexican parents, married a Mexican, practices Spanish at home all the time, but his first language was English, etc. etc. He complimented me on my Spanish again and went to serve other tables. If he’d left it at that, we would have been pleased with him as a waiter, but then he came back two more times to say, “Dude, I totally thought you were Spanish!”, at which point his flattery-for-tip scheme became completely transparent.
The food at Scoma’s was very good, but it was also the most expensive meal I can remember paying for, and it certainly wasn’t in the top ten in deliciousness or charm, so I would recommend skipping Scoma’s if you’re ever hungry at Fisherman’s Wharf.
It was a chilly cable car ride back to the hotel. In the hotel lobby, I picked up a free wifi signal (not from the hotel), of which there are not as many as you’d think in San Francisco, and saw that I had a message in Facebook from a second cousin of mine, Michelle, who I’ve never met, but who found me via this blog and befriended me on Facebook. She wanted to meet up the next day (she lives in Oakland), so we agreed to meet in front of Boudin’s Bakery for lunch the next day.
We slept like babies with sore feet.