Recently I’ve been inundated with advertisements for JJ Abrams’ (Lost, Fringe) recent contribution to the Fox primetime line-up: Alcatraz – which despite its dubious premise opened on Monday with impressive ratings. Throughout the previews were inimitable images of the famous island’s iconic halls, cell blocks, and exterior landscapes that repeatedly, and invariably, had me flashing back to the trip I took to the island last summer.
San Francisco is replete with interesting landmarks and attractions, but don’t let anyone convince you ‘The Rock’ is a tourist trap to be avoided: it’s not. It’s a bastion of mystery, intrigue, depravity, and beauty, all rolled into one.
I’ll preface by saying: don’t be fooled by one-off tour guides that can only deliver you foreplay: a boat ride around the island. Alcatraz Cruises is the official website and as far as I know one of, if not the only, company authorized to dock at the prison.
Do yourself a favor though and take the night tour. It’s a few extra bucks but looking out into the infamous yard from the poorly lit cell blocks with a backlit Golden Gate bridge painting the horizon is a pretty transcendant sight. Not to mention, the night tours roll with a fraction of the numbers you’ll see during the day so you can really immerse yourself in the experience.
The guides will entertain as you make the – surprisingly significant – climb up the campus toward the prison house however once you arrive you’ll trade them for a collection of former inmates who effectively and powerfully instill what it was truly like to inhabit The Rock. Their stories and insight on life as an Alcatraz inmate was an invaluable addition to what was already an incredible experience. Unfortunately Al Capone, the Birdman, and ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly weren’t available though so you’ll be relegated to pre-recorded discussion via the award winning audio tour but let me tell you, it’s not to be skipped!
Tip: Everyone in your group will be instructed to press play at the same time which inevitably leads to a cluster-fudge of humanity trying to jam themselves into the exhibit cells and around the small points of interest simultaneously. Once you’ve separated from the guides, press pause and hang back for a little bit to provide yourself a comfortable buffer from the tourist pile.
The full tour of the prison house takes about an hour at which time you’re free to roam the island until the next boat leaves. Use this time to get outside and feast your eyes on some unique perspectives of San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge, and Alcatraz itself from the periphery.
As noted above, there’s only one official vendor for tour tickets however there are a few companies that offer discounts and package deals.
Grab some dinner at Fisherman’s Wharf and then make the short walk over to Pier 33. You won’t regret it.
For the photographers out there, bring a fast lens and – if taking the night tour – ensure you get on the first boat (there’s only two) to maximize your light. Below are a handful of my better images from what was an incredible evening.