David Morgan visits ‘The Rock’, the prison island and now living museum with a rich history that fascinates 1.7million visitors to San Francisco each year

WHEN I was nine, my dad sent me a postcard of Alcatraz.

He was on a work trip to San Francisco to study the public transport system and that image of a maximum security prison on an island just a mile and a half from the Californian city fascinated me.

That interest only grew when my dad returned to tell me all about it and in the intervening years as I watched movies like Escape From Alcatraz and The Rock.

So – almost three decades later – it felt strange and exciting to be approaching the imposing structure on an Alcatraz Cruises daytrip from San Francisco’s northern waterfront promenade.

Despite building Alcatraz up in my mind over many years it did not underwhelm.

There is definitely a wow factor as soon as you dock and see the prison up close for the first time and it is clear that many people are just as fascinated with the island as I am because almost every cruise sells out way in advance.

Winsford Guardian:

Recreating the infamous escape attempt

In fact, Alcatraz – a US National Park – attracts more than 1.7 million visitors each year making it one of the biggest tourist attractions in San Francisco.

And a lucrative one too which is ironic considering one of the main reasons that Alcatraz closed as a prison in 1963 is that it was too expensive to operate.

The building is still remarkably intact and has been brilliantly adapted into a 'living museum' to give visitors a feel of what it was like to be a prisoner there.

'The Rock' was once home to some of America's most notorious criminals like Al Capone and the 'Birdman' Robert Stroud and 36 prisoners made 14 escape attempts during its 29 year history giving Alcatraz a sense of infamy.

And an exceptional audio tour brings this all to life from the daily grind to the most incredible breakouts (including the 1962 attempt by Frank Morris, John Anglin, and Clarence Anglin which may or may not have been successful – they were never found).

The walking tour takes you through each part of the prison and explains what part it played in the prisoners' lives and that of the people who worked there.

It was easy to follow, informative and immersive with sound effects that draw you in.

My five-year-old enjoyed posing for pictures behind the bars and in an isolation cell while what brought history to life for me was the recreation yard.

It is scattered with weeds, the concrete may be crumbling and the sounds of prisoners talking has been replaced with the caw of gulls but it made me think about who would have walked, talked and perhaps schemed in this area.

Was I standing in a spot that Al Capone had once occupied?

The view of San Francisco from Alcatraz also makes a lasting impression.

Winsford Guardian:

Prisoners arguably had the best view of the city's skyline – a taunting proposition as they were so close and yet so far from the mainland.

At weekends and particularly on New Year's Eve, it was said that inmates could even hear the sounds of the city and people celebrating, adding to the sense of punishment.

Of course, Alcatraz's main draw is its preserved prison but be sure to visit the exhibition and film area because the island has a rich history both before and after its time housing some of America's most infamous criminals between 1934 and 1963.

Civil War-era buildings, cannons, and subterranean rooms give insight into the 19th century when the island served as both a fort and a military prison.

You can also learn and see visible reminders of the time when the island was occupied by Native Americans.

During a time of growing awareness and support of Native American issues, activists claimed Alcatraz in the name of 'Indians of All Tribes' and stayed there for 19 months which ultimately resulted in their rights to self-governance being recognised.

It is fascinating to think of all the people who have gravitated to this island over the years and follow in those footsteps.

Be sure to make your escape to it if you ever visit San Francisco.

Visit alcatrazcruises.com