If you’ve seen a place featured in films or on telly, you never know how much is real and which scenes were faked in a Hollywood film set. I was keen to learn whether a trip to Alcatraz would disappoint viewers of movies like The Rock or Escape from Alcatraz.
“Many of the exterior shots were filmed on the island,” says Denise Ramunsen, who works with Alcatraz Cruises. “But some of the indoor footage was produced on a sound stage. The impact of movies featuring Alcatraz encourages people from all over the world to visit.”
This must be the most-featured 22 acres of rock in Hollywood history. There is something intriguing about the small island deemed too difficult to swim to freedom from. That didn’t bode well for the boat trip, though. Luckily it’s not a long crossing from San Francisco on the mainland. “It takes just twelve to fifteen minutes to cover the one mile distance from Pier 33,” Denise assures me.
So how much time should a visitor give the island? “We recommend a minimum of two-and-a-half hours to take on the trails like the agave walk, the cell house tour and gardens,” says Denise. The gardens are a highlight for many trippers who might be surprised at how nature and beauty flourished yards away from some of America’s most hardened criminals. “It’s such a desolate looking place in the middle of the bay that seeing the beauty of the gardens is unexpected,” says Denise. You can go on tours, which are held each Friday and Sunday at 9.30am. Different areas of Alcatraz feature gardens from different eras. The English Garden predated the prison. When it became a federal penitentiary, the warden’s wife introduced succulents and cacti to the mix.
Not everyone is going to be green-fingered. So what do regular visitors get to see, I ask? “You get an audio tour that lasts 45 minutes. It’s multilayered with dimensions of sound, so you hear the guards, the prisoners and their families. You’ll also hear the birds, fog horns and the slamming of the jail doors.”
They’ve gone to town with the audio-visuals. “There’s also a short video about the history of the island. You’ll learn about what it was like to be a prisoner and there’s a segment about the Sioux Indian occupation between 1969 and 1971.” The Native Americans laid claim to the island after the jail was closed in 1963. In many areas of the USA, abandoned government land was returned to the native people.
“The views back towards the city and the Golden Gate Bridge are spectacular and unlike anything you’ll view from any other vantage points,” says Denise.
So do visitors find Alcatraz moving, interesting or eerie? “All of those and more,” she replies. “Haunting, beautiful and compelling are all words that we hear on a regular basis,” says Denise. “Overall people are very positive about the tour.”
“Some people come because they want to assess the spirits on the island. There is a belief that there are ghosts there. Some guests just want to try and imagine what it would be like to be imprisoned in that cement jailhouse, hearing the sounds of San Francisco City coming across the water.” You might be pleased to know that you can’t spend the night!
So what’s the best time of year to visit? “The first few months of the year are slower – January and February. Early November is also quiet before the Christmas holiday period starts but it’s not so much about the season, it’s more about planning ahead,” Denise advised me. “Tickets sell out quite quickly. You can buy them on the website and they’re available on a rolling, 90-day calendar.” So if you want to make the trip, it’s best to plan ahead. “As soon as you know you are visiting San Francisco and you’d like to visit the island it’s best to buy the tickets. You can sometimes find that the islands cruises are sold out five or six months in advance,” says Denise.
Her website is alcatrazcruises.com.