A visit to Alcatraz, the small island that used to house one of the most notorious prisons in the whole world, is generally considered to be a “must see” experience for any traveller visiting San Francisco. Before we arrived, friends and relatives told us that walking round the spooky old prison was going to be an unforgettable experience and something not to be missed. My lovely colleague Emma, even gave us the money for tickets as a wedding present. What we didn’t realise is that the tickets to get onto the island are about as plentiful as sensible policies emanating from the Department for Education. In the other words, they are few and far between and we didn’t get any. Note to anyone else planning to visit San Francisco – book tickets to Alcatraz at least a week ahead!
So it was with some regrets that we settled for what seemed to be the next best option - hiring bicycles to cycle over the golden gate bridge, returning via a ferry that passed close to the island of Alcatraz. Having not been to Alcatraz, I can’t really compare the two experiences, but I can say that I really enjoyed the cycling and I would highly recommend it to anyone else. The hills of San Francisco are pretty intense, but the city is surprisingly well equipped for cyclists, with plenty of cycle lanes and very sensibly designed cycle routes. My favourite part was a bit called “the wiggle” which leads you up one of the steepest hills on a route that wiggles its way through various streets, mixing some intense uphills with some restful flatter sections.
When we got to the bridge it was shrouded in fog and caked in tourists. The world and his wife, his three children and his mother-in-law, all seemed to want to cycle the bridge. I felt pretty smug at this stage seeing that most people had hired bikes from very close to the bridge, which seemed a bit of a cop out, whereas we had hired bikes from the town centre and had already tackled some quite significant inclines before getting anywhere near the bridge. The smugness soon disappeared however, when I got on the bridge.
It is big, it is high up, and there are GAPS. Gaps in the sides, gaps in the floor, gaps where you can see alllllll the way down to the Pacific Ocean, some 200 ft below. Eeeeeek! Vincent managed without batting an eyelid, and I pretended to be equally sanguine, whilst focussing intently on the other end of the bridge and humming, bizarrely, "I want you back", by the Jackson 5 (it was the first song that came into my head). In the photo on the left you can see me looking quite relieved to have got to the other side!
Once we got to the other side, the little town of Sausalito was like another country; warm, sunny and with plenty of terra firma. The smugness returned as we watched most tourists join the ridiculously long queue to get the ferry straight back without cycling any further, whilst Charlotte and Vincent the adventurous set off on a cycle tour of the rest of the bay. We were fortified in this endeavour by a lovely lunch at an American diner, where we tucked into some classic American burgers. A shout out to all my colleagues in the DGS maths department for their contribution to our American diner experience! :-)
We headed up to a place called Mill Valley to find the fabled Giant Redwood trees – the tallest trees on the planet. Naively I thought these would be quite easy to spot and the map suggested that the Redwood grove was well signposted, but despite their giant size, they actually proved to be quite elusive. Thankfully, Americans are incredibly friendly folk and every time we stopped to look at the map, someone came over to see if we needed directions. In fact, most of the time I was fairly sure of the way, I was just looking at the map to be certain of where to go, but opening the map seemed to automatically attract friendly and helpful Americans who wanted to give us a hand.
In the photo on the right here, you can just about make out our bicycles in the middle of the image, leaning against the base of a tree. They really are huge!
We finished the day by getting the ferry back to San Francisco from a small town called Tiburon. The ferry passed very close to Alcatraz and the fabled prison and we certainly felt a shivery chill wind pass over us and we sailed by.