Despite its original use as the the first lighthouse on the west coast of America, the island known as Alcatraz – Spanish for 'pelican' or 'gannet' in honour of the birds that glide over the waters of the San Francisco Bay – has a dark history.
In the three decades until 1963 - the time it served as a maximum security prison - many hardened criminals passed through the doors at Alcatraz, convicted of crimes from espionage to murder. Many were never to leave again. The prison's most famous real-life in-mates include Al Capone, George 'Machine Gun' Kelly and Robert Stroud, better known as 'the Birdman of Alcatraz', and brought to life by Burt Lancaster in the Hollywood classic of the same name back in 1962. Many other star actors have also 'done time' within the federal prison including Clint Eastwood, Nicolas Cage and Sean Connery.
Now, though, the crowds who visit daily do so as tourists, and whether they come looking for the historical reality or the Hollywood interpretation, they come in their millions to 'the Rock', an island that has served in turn as lighthouse, military fortress and prison, and which now, as part of the Golden Gate National Park, is a bird sanctuary and tourist attraction.
If you want to make the tour, you need to plan in advance as there is only one company – Alcatraz Cruises – who operate a ferry service to the island. The boats leave from Pier 33 at Fisherman's Wharf and the trip takes just fifteen minutes – a short enough distance now, but one that must have seemed an impossible barrier to those confined to the high-security hallways, corridors and cells. There are several options for your own Alcatraz experience, ranging from a nocturnal boat trip, to a tour that combines the two most famous islands in the bay: Alcatraz and Angel Island.
Visitors to Alcatraz have the chance to discover how the prisoners lived, subjected to solitary confinement, hard labour in chain gangs, strict diet and, of course, extreme security measures, not least the impassable barrier of the shark-infested waters of the Atlantic Ocean. At the start of the tour, audio guides are provided which guide visitors along a route that passes through the cells, exercise ground, kitchen and library.
A number of prison officers and ex-prisoners, protagonists of the real history of Alcatraz, act as narrators to these guides, and provide the eye-witness accounts of past horrors that make this a trip well worth taking – when you know you'll be allowed to go home when it's over.