Monday 23 April 2018

Alcatraz trip delivers the great escape

CLASSIC ROCK: A full moon rises over Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay and the Berkeley Hills in California. An audio tour of the island’s former prison includes inmates’ testimonies
CLASSIC ROCK: A full moon rises over Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay and the Berkeley Hills in California. An audio tour of the island’s former prison includes inmates’ testimonies
John Anglin's cell at the former Alcatraz Island federal prison greets visitors
Cable Car by Alcatraz
The Golden Gate Bridge
California Map

Fergus McDonnell

OF THE rules that governed prison life on Alcatraz, number five was perhaps the most stark. 'You are entitled,' it began, 'to food, clothing, shelter and medical attention. Anything else that you get is a privilege.'

Life on The Rock was hard, made harder by its proximity to San Francisco. Close enough to hear the chatter and laughter of parties on nights such as New Year's Eve, it must have been torture to imagine the world that lay just two kilometres away . . . and beyond.

We arrive in the city on Sunday evening and the taxi drive to our hotel immediately reveals, and that is a good choice of word, one of the things San Francisco is most famous for as we come across the remains of a gay gathering. Let's just say that 'having the arse out of your trousers' has a completely different meaning here, and one which doesn't appear to imply a lack of funds.

The city is immediately warm and friendly. We check in to The Huntington Hotel at the top of Nob Hill and, after a quick change, we're heading to Fisherman's Wharf, just a 15-minute walk or a short taxi drive away.

It's a good introduction. We stroll around taking in the sights and sounds of the shops, restaurants and street entertainers before choosing an eatery for a very pleasant meal and a few beers – staying awake just long enough to take the edge off the jet lag.

The next day is a whirlwind of activity. First stop is Pier 33 for a quick breakfast and the boat to Alcatraz – an absolute must-do for any visitor to San Francisco.

The audio tour, included in the price of your ticket, takes you through the former prison with the testimonies of past inmates bringing the whole experience to life. It is a fascinating, eerie, thought-provoking step back in time, and you can't help but wonder why we retain so many of these monuments to man's cruelty to his fellow man.

If it is to help us learn the lessons of history, then it is clearly failing. You wonder if, one day, you will be able to take a tour of Guantanamo Bay and feel the misery of the inmates in the same way.

The infestation of flies as we await the ferry back to the mainland is a reminder that you don't have to be a criminal to suffer in this life.

Back on dry land and, after a short walk, the next stop is Bay City Bike Rentals which, you won't be surprised to hear, does exactly what it says on the tin. The helpful, well-informed staff soon have us saddled up and with simple directions we're heading towards the Golden Gate Bridge.

We are on two wheels for about an hour and a half, most of it on cycle paths as we headed past Pacific Heights and over the bridge, which although shrouded in mist, still manages to yield some stunning views to a fog-horn soundtrack. The ride towards the bridge can be steep at times, but nothing too taxing, and you can always take a breather and walk up the tougher sections.

Once on the other side it's downhill almost all the way to Sausalito Bay, a beautiful coastal community with no shortage of options for lunch and a beer or a glass of wine before catching the ferry back to San Francisco. We return the bikes and toy with the idea of catching one of the famous trams towards Union Square for a bit of late afternoon shopping, but the queue is at least an hour long and, while they do make quite a sight, we decide to take a taxi instead.

With credit card reeling from a successful bargain hunt, we head back to our sanctuary at The Huntington Hotel. While the sumptuous bed was calling louder than ever to soothe our jet-lagged limbs, we managed to fight it long enough to enjoy an outstanding meal in the Big 4 Restaurant downstairs. Our only regret was that we didn't have time to sample the delights of the Nob Hill Spa.

"You taking the One?" The waiter's question was in response to our stated intention to head for Half Moon Bay the next morning and was quickly followed by a most emphatic statement: "You gotta take the One." So, always ready to obey instructions, we pointed the sat nav in the direction of Highway One and left San Francisco behind.

And what a trip. The first thing that strikes you is how quickly you escape the city, and the next thing you notice is that you have stopped talking. The major challenge on this road is to keep your eyes on it as every twist and turn offers another spectacular view of the ocean waves crashing onto the shore under a glorious blue sky.

We arrive in Half Moon Bay and are immediately impressed. This is a beautiful town with a wide main street and the welcome in the delightful Half Moon Bay Inn is warm and friendly. With luxurious beds and fine linens, each room has a unique layout, some with terraces and all with private marble bathrooms.

Dinner that night was in the Pasta Moon which serves a delicious brand of modern Italian food. They pride themselves on only using local produce. It's a formula that has worked brilliantly for 25 years.

An early start the next morning got under way with a hangover-busting kayak trip on the bay. The view is dominated by the early-warning missile base with its giant golf-ball like structure on the hill, and the experience was heightened by the tsunami siren. Thankfully, it was preceded by an announcement that it was only a test and the many seals popping their heads out of the water to investigate my kayak didn't seem too bothered. As long as they were happy, so was I.

We lunched in the Half Moon Bay Brewing Company. Well worth a visit for the excellent food and wide range of beers brewed on the premises. At night, there's music too in this shrine to old-school surfing.

Refreshed after two nights in the warm and gentle embrace of the Half Moon Bay Inn, we set off the next morning for Santa Cruz and a visit to the Henry Cowell Redwood State Park. Walking among these giant specimens is an incredible experience and you can't help but feel awe-struck in their towering presence.

Our afternoon treat is 18 holes at the Pasatiempo Golf Club. This track offers as stiff a challenge as you might expect from the work of Alister MacKenzie, who also designed Augusta National, Cypress Point and our own Lahinch. Pasatiempo was his favourite, though, and his home can still be seen next to the sixth fairway.

A less testing round is available at the Pacific Grove Golf links, a public course that really comes alive on the back nine where the ocean is almost always in view.

Driving into Carmel that night was like driving into a scene you might expect to see on a chocolate box.

The city, probably most famous for once having Clint Eastwood as its mayor, is a truly remarkable place. The lack of street lighting, its illuminations being restricted to fairy lights wrapped around trees, gives it a real fairytale feel.

Carmel is a beautiful city, and L'Auberge a wonderful hotel where you cannot fail to feel thoroughly pampered by the attentive staff and luxurious accommodation.

We dined that night in Cantinetta Luca, a short stroll away, where chef Jason Balestrieri gives his beloved Italian food a fresh twist that is nothing short of outstanding.

A wonderful week was drawing rapidly to a close, but we still had two nights left which we spent in the modern surrounds of the Portola Hotel and Spa in Monterey.

You might not immediately think history when you think California, but the area has a fascinating tale to tell and, in the company of Thom Diggins, a few hours spent walking around this former capital will reveal a most rewarding hidden side to Monterey.

With its low humidity, beautiful sunshine and remarkably warm and friendly people, the region around San Francisco has everything you could possibly want from a holiday.

Those inmates of Alcatraz knew they were missing out on a lot as they lay in their cells listening to the sounds of laughter drifting across the bay. They just didn't know how much.

Getting there

Aer Lingus begins direct flights to San Francisco in April, with five flights per week and summer fares from €369 each way,

The Huntington Hotel & Nob Hill Spa

1075 California St., San Francisco, CA 94108

415-474-5400 /

Half Moon Bay Inn

401 Main Street, Half Moon Bay, CA 94019



Monte Verde & 7th, Carmel, CA 93921


Portola Hotel & Spa

Two Portola Plaza, Monterey, CA 93940

Take Three


Among the many fascinating stories relayed on the audio tour is the escape attempt involving Frank Morris and brothers John and Clarence Anglin. The three broke through the air vents at the back of their cells into a utility wall at the back of Cell Block B. From there, they climbed to the roof, leaving papier-mache heads in their bunks to fool the guards into thinking they were still there. Although they had a makeshift raft, and no bodies were ever recovered, it is most likely that they drowned in the bay.

The Redwoods

The main area of the Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park contains the large, old-growth redwoods, while the northern area (Fall Creek) has about 20 miles of hiking trails. One tree, hollowed out by fire, was available for hire in the 1920s as a honeymoon suite. The entrance has closed considerably since, but it's possible to squeeze inside. The biggest tree in the park is about 285 feet high and about 16 feet wide. The oldest trees in the park are 1,400-1,800 years old and the park has a very interesting nature centre and bookstore.

Monterey Custom house

Built around 1827 by the ruling Mexican government, the custom house was used to collect taxes from the trading nations of Britain, America and South America. There was a surprising Russian influence as well, but this travelled overland from Alaska. In 1846, US Commodore John Drake Sloat led a landing party with the intention of taking California from the Mexicans by force. But they met little resistance and Sloat was able to raise the American flag on the customhouse and declare California part of the United States.

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