San Francisco

Published: September 19th 2016
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We arrived in San Francisco late that evening, and got a cab to our hotel just off Union Square. After the relaxing, quiet atmosphere of Maui, it was nice to be in a bustling city again. We dropped our bags at Hotel Rex and headed straight to the hotel bar to grab a free glass of wine. Dave was up at the bar ordering, and the man behind the bar asked him where we were from. He said "Ireland". The guy said "I know. Where in Ireland? I'm from Howth". This was a different kettle of fish to Hawaii where Irish people are so exotic. In San Fran, we noticed every second person was Irish! After our drink we headed next door to Hogwash for some food. We had loads of different kinds of sausages and sampled lots of different beers. Afterwards we took a stroll around Union Square which was all lit up for Christmas. We stopped off in a bar for a couple of drinks before heading to bed.

We had booked a hop on hop off bus tour, so the next morning We strolled to Leavenworth, through Chinatown to the offices of the open top bus tour. We couldn't find the office, but eventually found out that they had moved, so we took a short walk to the new office and got our tickets. The walk was fairly hilly, and by the time we reached Leavenworth we begun to realise the importance of the cable cars. The bus wasn't due to leave the stop for another hour, so we went to a diner next door and had breakfast. Afterwards we hopped on the bus and were greeted by our tour guide, Sheldon, who was very nice but a little scatty. We took the downtown tour and sat on the top level, which was a little windy to say the least. We were happy we dragged our winter coats all the way over!

We could see Coit tower from the bus, which is a tower named after Lillian Coit, who left this estate to the city when she died, in a bid to beautify the city of San Francisco. She had a close relationship with firefighters in San Francisco, and from the age of 15 she helped them fight fires. We saw many other buildings like the Transamerican Pyramid, the Hibernia Bank, City Hall, Columbus Tower. We also past a building which was a church and then converted. The law said that you cannot have a pub within a certain amount of feet from a church. The people who owned the church converted it and built it up several stories, with a pub on the top floor, therefore keeping within the regulations of the law. We drove through Chinatown, through the arch (it was a bit dodgy on a double decker bus). We also passed the church where Marilyn Monroe and Joe Damaggio got their wedding photos taken. They got married at City Hall but didn't want to upset Joe's mother by telling her they weren't married in a church. So they got their photos taken as they were stepping out of the church, leading people to believe they actually got married there.

We got off the bus at pier 39 to take a look around. We spotted a Bubba Gumps straight away and made a mental note to go their later on. We headed down near the sea and saw so many seals sitting on the pier. We had our ferry booked for Alcatraz for that day so we walked down to the pier where the ferry was leaving from. We got our tickets at the booth and waited in the queue to board the ferry. The crossing was pleasant enough, albeit a little windy. We sat on the top deck and took in the views of the bay; the Golden Gate Bridge, the San Francisco skyline and Alcatraz Island itself.

We arrived on the island to the sound of a singing voice. One of the rangers was singing a song about Alcatraz to the tune of a Lady Gaga song. Very strange altogether. She was rewarded with tumultuous applause. The island is now run by the National Parks Service so the employees and tour guides are all rangers. We found a ranger who was just starting a tour and we joined in. He took us around the island towards the site where the apartments were for staff and wardens of the old prison, but the buildings were torn down after the occupation of the Indians in 1969. We took a walk up the side of the island and our guide pointed out a couple of spots where people tried to escape. He also pointed out the sniper towers high above, adding that many attempted-escapees didn't get very far. Except for the three escapees who disappeared without a trace and no one knows to this day if they got away or if they drowned.

We followed our guide up to the rec yard which was basically a concrete bowl for prisoners to walk around in and get some exercise and fresh air. The water tower loomed over the yard on one side, the prison block on the other. The rec yard has been used in many movies. The most famous being "Escape from Alcatraz" which we watched when we got home!

We went up a steep flight of concrete steps which brought us into the main prison. It was a bit creepy being in the building, it's so big. Our guide had told us so many stories, but we wanted to learn more so we followed the signs which took us down to the shower room. There they were giving out audio guides. We picked up an audio guide each and started the tour. The tour took us all around the cell block, which had "streets" named after real streets, like Times Square and Broadway. Each cell was so small, with a tiny bed, a sink, a toilet and a little table. We headed into the D block which was where prisoners were sent to be in isolation. This was a bit grim, as their cells faced a wall which had windows up high. On the audio guide, there were ex prisoners and ex wardens talking about their experiences there. One prisoner spoke about being in isolation, and sometimes being able to hear laughter from parties going on in San Francisco. Further down the cell block were two solitary confinement cells, which are pitch black when you shut the doors. Prisoners were put in here for bad behaviour. One other prisoner spoke about being in solitary, and how he would rip a button off his shirt and toss it in the air. He would spend the next while searching for the button in the dark cell. Once he found the button he'd do it all again.

Back in the main cell block, we went to a cell where a number of guards were held hostage during an escape attempt in 1946. The prisoners who wanted to escape had their eye on a door in the cell block which led out to the rec yard. They were on kitchen cleaning duty and called for a guard to let them out of the kitchen, then attacked him. They had discovered a flaw in the bars of the gun gallery where the armed guards patrolled 24 hours a day. They discovered that the bars could be pulled apart using a nut and bolt. They managed to get up to the gun gallery and overpower the guard on duty, taking his gun. They held a number of people hostage in the cell while one other prisoner tried to open the door with the set of keys that they had taken from one of the guards. One guard, William Miller, had been quick enough to hide the key to that outside door in his pocket, so the prisoners were unable to get out of the building. Eventually, they found out what he did and shot him in the cell.

The audio tour took us outside to the administration building where we saw the head warden's office and the control room. We saw the site of the staff apartments which were pretty close to the prison, where the wardens' families lived. We then went back inside to the dining room, where the prisoners had 3 meals a day. Apparently, the food was very good here compared to other prisons. One former inmate told a story about one of the prisoners who was so fed up with getting spaghetti, that one day he said if they got spaghetti again he would turn the place upside down. The next day they got spaghetti, he started turning over tables and throwing dishes; and all the other prisoners joined in. There were always guards stationed behind bars in the dining area, and one fired a gun shot into the air. The chaos stopped and all the prisoners went back to their cells quietly. Behind the serving counter you could see the chef's kitchen, and painted on the wall were the outlines of knives, so the chef knew at a glance if any of his knives were missing!

We dropped back our audio guides, headed for the gift shop and ran to catch the last ferry off the island. The crossing back was pleasant enough and when we got to the pier we headed straight for Bubba Gumps as we were starving. We stuffed ourselves full of shrimp and headed back to the hotel. It was pretty late and we decided to go to Chinatown for some dinner. We chose a restaurant which looked nice and grabbed a table. The waiter came over with menus, asking us to choose right away because the kitchen was closing. As we ate our dinner, he stood over us, clearing plates away from under us as we finished eating. It was the most stressful meal I ever had in my life! Afterwards we went strolling around the city and grabbed a couple of drinks before heading back to the hotel. We were pretty tired after our busy day.

The next morning was our last day, and we had to pick up our rental car at 3 so we headed down to the open top bus again to do the Golden Gate Bridge Tour. On the way we passed Cobb's Comedy Club, where Robin Williams used to gig before he was famous. He also used to hang around the pier and charge people a dime for a joke. The tour guide on the bus was much better than Sheldon and he was hilarious. We drove up to the Golden Gate Bridge. It was spectacular. As we drove across it, the wind was so strong we pulled our hoods tight over our heads. Maybe sitting up top was a bad idea! The views of the city and the bay on the way over the bridge were beautiful and we took plenty of photos. On the other side, our guide parked the bus and we had a few minutes to look around and take some photos of the views.

We drove further on into a quiet suburb called Sausalito. It's a very exclusive neighbourhood with celebrities like Nicholas Cage having houses there. It's so fancy that the tour guides going through on buses are not to speak to their tourists while going through the town. Our guide was hilarious, he kept talking to us and telling us things about Sausalito, but he whispered into the microphone. Apparently, Justin Bieber wanted to buy a house there but the locals lobbied against it as he would be having too many parties and he'd bring down the tone of the area!

We took a few photos and the bus took us back into the city. We stopped by the hotel to pick up our bags and headed down to the car rental garage to pick up our car. Our plan was to drive to LA over the next couple of days, stopping in a couple of places along the way. We were excited about the next part of our journey, but we had to get out of San Francisco first, and even with sat nav, it proved to be pretty difficult.

we went to the Cable Car Cafe on Powell street for some breakfast. We had pancakes, eggs, bacon, maple syrup and free refills of coffee.

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