By Barbara Wade 2010, All Rights Reserved
If all you've ever seen of California are beaches and nightclubs, you owe it to yourself to spend a few days in San Francisco. Luxury hotel accommodations share the waterfront with historic buildings; boutique shops vie for space among the fish stalls of the famous Fisherman's Wharf; and jutting proudly from the bay is the island prison known simply as The Rock. This wonderfully diverse city offers something for every traveler, but for history lovers, the waterfront is not to be missed.
Board an Historic Ship at San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park
In January of 1887, the newly christened Balclutha set sail from England carrying nearly 3,000 tons of coal bound for San Francisco. In June, after having made the months-long trip around Cape Horn, she sailed into San Francisco harbor, where she would take on a load of California wheat before making the voyage back to England. Balclutha's long and distinguished career included stops at such exotic ports as New Zealand, Chignik Bay, Alaska, and Catalina Island, where she had a supporting role in the movie, Mutiny on the Bounty. Today, she's been fully restored and welcomes visitors at the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park.
As you board Balclutha, you'll be transported back to a time before trucks and planes, when the movement of goods relied on fickle winds and temperamental seas. You'll discover how the crew lived for months at sea, often with their families and even their pets along for company. Follow your guide as he shows you through the many photos and exhibits what it was really like to earn your living as a sailor. You might just find, as they often did, that adventure isn't always as romantic as it seems.
Tour the World's Most Famous Prison
From sailing ships to rocky islands, San Francisco has a great deal to share with history buffs. Alcatraz Island served as a prison from 1859 until 1963, and since the early 1970s has been a favorite tourist destination. Visitors can see the cell that housed Al Capone, view the tools prisoners fashioned for use in the many escape attempts, and hear the story of the inmates who might just have made it out though no one knows for sure. You can take a self-guided tour of the grounds by renting an Alcatraz Cellhouse Audio Tour, or if you prefer, take part in one of the many special events the National Park Service hosts.
There's more to this island than an abandoned prison, though. The staff at Alcatraz not only worked here, but they and their families lived on "The Rock" as well. In an effort to make the hostile surroundings more comfortable, they introduced a wide variety of non-native plants and flowers to their gardens. In the decades between the island's occupancy and the gardens' restoration in 2003, many of these colorful plants flourished. Brilliant blooms cover the island and make Alcatraz's gardens nearly as popular a tourist destination as the prison itself.
Since the discovery of gold in the hills surrounding San Francisco, the area has seen tremendous growth. Where once was a tiny village, there now stands a thriving metropolis with a vibrant cultural center. Proud of her heritage, the city of San Francisco encourages diversity while maintaining strong ties to the past through historical exhibits like Alcatraz and the San Francisco Maritime Park. Plan a stay in a luxurious San Francisco Embarcadero hotel and you too can enjoy the best of both worlds.