The first thing you notice about Alcatraz is how small it is compared to that image in your mind. If you’re ever met a celebrity you find most of them are smaller in real life. It’s the same with this place. The Rock became famous, and like any other celebrity you come to terms with the stories in your head when you meet one.
I don’t celebrate the lives of murderers and con men. They were put here for a reason, and it’s not for things that should be celebrated. For me, Alcatraz was a curiosity, an island front and center in the middle of San Francisco Bay that offers stunning views back towards the city, the bridges and the beautiful natural world that surrounds you when you’re standing on it.
Jail cells and all that aside, the island was once a fort that utilized that commanding position in the harbor as a key defensive position. Eventually military prisoners were incarcerated on the island and it grew from there into a federal prison. It reminded me of Edinburgh Castle, both with reputations for strength, both at turns a fort and prison, both requiring steep ascents to get to the top. They put these places where they were for a reason.
The Alcatraz tour itself is a downloadable app that you listen to on your phone. You can still borrow the headphones but most people seem to prefer the app. It detects when you remove the phone from your ear so you aren’t missing the story while taking pictures with your phone. The drawback to this is dozens if people walking in every direction with their phones pressed to their ears like Christmas Eve shoppers in a crowded mall. So I was happy to complete the official tour and wander around the island. And that’s where the real magic was.
The gardens of Alcatraz are beautiful, diverse landscapes in a unique microclimate. Old foundations form neat garden walls, and the wall tops themselves became long rows of planters. Plants ranged from agave to fuchsia to a showstopper, Pride of Madeira, each set against a beautiful water view. The gardens made the trip for me, making Alcatraz more than a rock in the bay with a few stories.
I confess I wasn’t excited about going to Alcatraz, but I’m glad I did. It rounds out the history of this place when you’re standing on it. That story is a little dark, but also more beautiful than I gave it credit for. But isn’t that what travel does for you? It changes perceptions, one visit at a time.