Plenty of Islands Dot Famous Bay; Alcatraz Remains Most Popular

Reed Travel Features

SAN FRANCISCO -- The bay on which this hilly city stands is a 500-square-mile expanse dotted with more than a dozen islands, many of them uninhabited. The most famous of the islands, of course, is Alcatraz, the centerpiece of almost every view of the bay. Alcatraz -- also known as "the Rock" -- has no inhabitants, apart from a handful of maintenance workers. Yet throughout the year and especially in the summer months, the forbidding, craggy island plays host to thousands upon thousands of people.

Unlike some previous visitors, among them Al Capone, "Machine Gun" Kelly and Robert Straud, the famous Bird Man of Alcatraz, visitors are free to leave when they please, or at least as soon as the next ferry is available. Alcatraz, an expensive facility to run and one whose prisoner rehabilitation methods were questionable, was shut down as a federal penitentiary in 1963 and stood idle for a decade.

Then, the city acknowledged the public's fascination with the notorious prison, which has been the source of legends and the subject of movies and television documentaries. The island prison was opened to the public in 1973 and has been a premier attraction ever since. It can be reached by one of the boats of the Red and White Fleet, which operates frequent service from Pier 39.

On the island, visitors can walk the cell blocks to the accompaniment of a taped narrative, watch movies about the place and listen to talks by Alcatraz experts, including a former guard. For pricing and hours of operation, call Red and White at (800) 229-2784 or (415) 564-2700.

Elsewhere in the bay is "the Ellis Island of the West," otherwise known as Angel Island. It was here, in the early part of this century, that immigrants from Pacific Rim countries first set foot on U.S. soil and went through immigration procedures similar to those followed at Ellis Island in New York.

The Angel Island immigration facility, which closed in 1940, is a historic site, as is some Civil War-era housing. Visitors can hike, bike or take tram rides on the island, which, like Alcatraz, is accessible by ferry and is open daily in the summer and only on weekends from October on. A third island worthy of attention is Treasure Island, a man-made area that was the site of the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition and offers spectacular views of the San Francisco skyline. Its museum houses works of art remaining from that great event as well as military and naval exhibits. Check with Red and White for times and prices.

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