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Nothing Like Prison in the Springtime: Alcatraz Sunset Cruise

Most people aren't this happy to go to prison. But I am.

My mother was very enthusiastic about the idea of me going to prison.  Seriously.  I wasn’t even considering a trip to Alcatraz during my time in San Francisco, but my mother insisted.  It was the best thing my friends did while they were there, she claimed, you simply have to go.  And so I did.

Don’t you hate it when your mother is right?

The Alcatraz sunset cruise and tour was definitely a highlight of my visit to San Francisco (which is saying a lot, given how amazing San Francisco is), but for a surprising reason.  You see, I had no idea that Alcatraz was so, well, lovely.  It’s truly a gorgeous place, especially in the springtime.  I don’t know why this isn’t more commonly known–but I’d like to shout it from the rooftops.  Hey world!  Visit Alcatraz in the spring!  It’s stunning!

As soon as we stepped off the ferry I noticed something was off.  Were those irises circling the watchtower?  And that institutional-looking staircase–is it lined with pink blooms?  Is that phlox trailing over the side of that retaining wall?  I think it might be.  Wait–is that a calla lilly?!?  I had a hard time listening to our tour guide as he walked us up the steep hill–and I barely noticed the effort the walk required–as I snapped photos left and right.  I could continue to tell you about it, or I could just post some of the photos.  Gee, I wonder which one I’ll do.

By the time we reached the prison itself I was more than happy to stop clicking–having taken over a hundred photos just on the way up–and give myself over to the educational part of the tour.  As any good Suitcase Scholar, I love audio tours, and the audio tour of Alcatraz may well be the single best audio tour I’ve ever experienced (save for perhaps the multi-media tour at the British Museum, but really that’s not a fair comparison.  It’s like apples to oranges, museums to prisons…)

The tour begins by introducing you to the tour guides and some of the inmates whose voices you will hear throughout the tour.  Take the time to look at the photos and slowly immerse yourself in the experience.  Because this audio tour is fully immersive–with the background sounds of yelling, clanging, and other prison noises, the audio guide really makes you feel like you are in the Alcatraz of yore.

The prison's library. Or maybe that needs air quotes: 'library'.

After wandering about the cell blocks for a while, you’ll enter the administrative offices area.  IMPORTANT TIP:  At this point, pause your audio tour and walk out the doors directly in front of you into the outdoor space at the tip of the island.  If you’ve taken the sunset cruise–and you really, really should–by this point the sun should actually be starting to set.  I probably spent a half hour out here mid tour, taking photos and generally marveling at the beautiful views.  I could once again continue to go on and on or, once again could post some more photos.

I continued with the tour, which ends in the dining hall, complete with authentic dining hall sounds soundtrack.  Because the tour is so well timed, it is right around this point in the evening when the Alcatraz hospital opens, which is accessed by a stairway in the dining hall.  I climbed the steps to take a peek and found it creepy yet crowded.  After a brief stop in the gift shop  (where I seriously contemplated purchasing some prison signs for my classroom.  Yes, you read that correctly!) I made my way back out to the ferry dock to return to a life of freedom in San Francisco.

Lest you forget, looking at the outdoor photos--this is still a prison.

My original opinion on a visit to Alcatraz was that it would be a complete waste of a nice day.  But I’ll be the first to admit that this theory was one hundred percent incorrect.  There’s truly nothing like prison in the springtime.

After my tour I met up for dinner with a local friend.  She’s lived in San Francisco for almost ten years, and in telling her about my day I paused to ask if she’d ever done the tourist thing and visited Alcatraz.  No, in fact, she had not.  So I told her she simply had to go–but to please be sure to visit when all of the flowers are in bloom.  And yes, she looked at me funny.

The only way to visit Alcatraz is to book through the Alcatraz Island’s official website, Alcatraz Cruises, which is run by the National Park Service.  If you book any other way, you may cruise around Alcatraz, but you won’t stop there.  And that would be a damn shame.  They offer four tours per day–an early bird, one morning, one afternoon, and one evening–and a combined Alcatraz/Angel Island cruise.  A detailed comparison of the various options can be found HERE.  

Disclosure:  Alcatraz cruises provided me with a complimentary tour in exchange for blog coverage of the experience.  As always, all opinions are my own.  

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