December 29th – At very early o’clock we discover the delights of a genuine American diner – Lori’s – just up from the hotel on Union Square, but we forgo the the pleasures of a stack of pancakes, grits (whatever they are) or biscuits with gravy for a simple breakfast of eggs and tomato. Looking round I am surprised to see many of the early bird clientelle are also sticking to a healthier option breakfast. But then we are in San Francisco. I love the way the coffee is continuously topped up and by the end of breakfast I am whizzing my way to wait for our Urban Safari tour bus and an 8 o’clock pick-up.
The tour came as part of the hotel deal and includes a trip to Alcatraz. It soon becomes apparent that this is no ordinary tour as a genuine open-sided Safari bus complete in black and white zebra stripes and adorned with plastic’ jungle’ pulls up. We are to wear pith helmets and the jungle print blankets are welcome as the day starts quite chilly and there is a fog around the city. We decide that we must ‘go with the flow’ and join in the silliness with the other tourists who come from diverse parts of the USA, England and Australia. The tour guide is an old boy ( I can empathise with him ) who has a line in corny jokes but is affable and very knowledgeable about the city. His driver is a large Jamaican guy with dreadlocks that come down to his toes and some mean dark shades and a voice like gravel. Together they are a good team but cannot dodge the fog and so our view of the Golden Gate Bridge, when we get there, is about 30 yards in front of a pretty cold nose. We do not go up to Twin Peaks as that too is shrouded in a mist but even so the tour is interesting as we cross different ‘villages’ that make up this diverse and very hilly city and in five hours we have a very good feel of where we might want to go to eat or see the sights.
We are dropped at the boat for Alcatraz and to a musical backdrop of eerie foghorns we head into the gloom for the Rock which soon looms out of the mist and is somehow even more daunting because of the swirling fog
The audio tour is excellent and the whole experience of seeing the cells and the awful conditions the prisoners lived in all explained by ex-cons and prison wardens is very moving. We cannot believe how small, cramped and cold each cell is or how compact is the whole prison complex that contained so many disparate and often dangerous men and their guards. And just down the hill a bit the guards’ families lived with their children, tended gardens, entertained and enjoyed to-die-for views across the Bay to the San Francisco shore line. We can hear the sounds of the city as we walk around – the fog horns, some piling going on in the harbour, the occasional siren, birds squawking. How excruciatingly frustrating and maddening must that have been to the convicts incarcerated in those damp, cold cells with no view at all except of the prisoner opposite.
With some food for thought we are taken back to the razzamatazz that is Pier 39 and a lovely meal of the local seafood stew, spaghetti and meatballs and a view over the Island and the Bridge which are slowly escaping from the grips of the fog as evening and a pink sky transforms the bay. And we decide to walk back to the hotel as night falls and the city lights up – because we can.
We decide we rather like this place and realise just how lucky we are that we still enjoy the freedom to enjoy it and how privileged we are to be able to do it.