The Rock – Alcatraz

Alcatraz as seen from ferry.

The day was clear and slightly breezy, which is rare in San Francisco. The day before, we played “What is the Weather Now?” when it went from sunny, to foggy, to rainy and back to sunny in the space of 10 minutes. But this day, it was clear and the bay wasn’t too wavy. We were finally going to get to go to Alcatraz.

Twice, several years before this trip, my husband and I wanted to visit “The Rock.” We heard it was a great trip. Not long after we were married, we went to go get tickets and found out it was closed for three weeks. They were filming “The Rock” on Alcatraz. Great movie and I love Sean Connery, but I was disappointed. The next trip, about a decade later, the weather was not cooperating and the water in the bay was too rough. Strike two for Alcatraz. This time, and two children later, it was actually happening!

Get your tickets early, like weeks early (you can order them up to 90 days before your visit), because they sell out fast, especially in high tourist times. Then find Alcatraz Cruises on Pier 33 on the waterfront. It’s not too far from Fisherman’s Wharf. This is the only way to get to The Rock. The National Park Service website (www.nps.gov/alca/planyourvisit/directions.htm) warns that parking is very limited, so public transportation is best.

There are day and night excursions. We took the day one this trip, but I would love to go back and take the night tour. They are very different and you can check out the details on the above website. Don’t forget to smile as you board the ferry. They take your picture as you get on so you have a lovely souvenir to purchase when you get back. The ferry cruise to the island was nice as they gave a brief history of the island as you go. Once you dock on the island, you have a steep uphill climb to get to where the tour begins. Some of the buildings are open and you can read various plaques of information. Most of these buildings are from the time before the prison. If you can’t make the walk, the park service does provide transportation to the entrance.

Once you are on the island, vantage points offer beautiful, if hazy views of San Francisco, Sausalito, the Bay Bridge and, of course, the Golden Gate. If the day is clear enough, you may be able to see the Coit Tower. This is just the land view. On the water, you may be able to see sailboats of all sizes and colors enjoying the day. If you are really lucky, you may go to Alcatraz when there is a sailboat race going on. The regatta is magnificent!

Most people don’t know, until they tour the island that Alcatraz was first a military fort, established in 1850, shortly after gold was discovered in California and the year California became a state. According to the National Parks website, it was part of the “Triangle of Defense” to protect the San Francisco Bay. It was even the site of a short-lived plot to blockade the bay during the Civil War. The Union troops stationed at Alcatraz defeated the Confederate plot without a shot fired.

Alcatraz remained a military fort until 1934, when it became of federal prison with an infamous guest list. This is what most of the tourist come to learn about. You can tour Alcatraz on your own, but I recommend spending the extra money on the audio tour. The narrator spins an excellent tale and there are first hand accounts by some of the later prisoners incarcerated there. Most of the prisoners were not well known, but Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly and the Birdman of Alcatraz (Robert Stroud) stand out. My oldest son was 10 when we went, and he was fascinated. The audio tour is great for the entire family, no matter the age.

During the audio tour, you will learn that while they are not exactly sure which cell belonged to Al Capone, you will see the cell from the famous escape in 1962. You can see the head models that John and Clarence Anglin and Frank Morris made to fool the guards at bed check. Chris, my oldest, was especially interested in this tale. In fact, he was so interested that I almost could keep up with him! He was literally running from one audio station to the next!

The escapees were never heard from again, sparking much speculation about whether or not they made it to safety. The FBI officially closed the case in 1979, but there is no statute of limitations on escape from a federal prison. Some speculate that they survived and are living in Brazil. Hmmm… I wonder.

The prison closed in 1963 and in 1969 was occupied by Native American activists until 1971. In 1986, Alcatraz became a National Historic Landmark under the management of the National Park Service. There are many areas of the island that are still open to explore and you have until the last ferry to do so. However, if you don’t make it to that last one, you just may have the experience of being incarcerated on “The Rock,” at least for a little while.

Sandpoint Idaho

An Outdoor Paradise!

Green highway sign for the Idaho city of Sandpoint, county seat of Bonner County

Eighty miles east of Spokane, Washington, snuggled in between the mountain ranges of northern Idaho and located on Lake Pend Oreille is the outdoor paradise of Sandpoint, Idaho. Active with life year-round, Sandpoint has it all. Let’s take a peek.

Sandpoint is the home of the largest theme park in the Northwestern United States, Silverwood Theme Park. The main attraction is the Aftershock. A wild and woolly rollercoaster that stands 191 feet tall, hits 65 mph and pulls in 4.5 Gs. Not your style? That’s ok. There are a couple of other rollercoasters that will get your heart rate up, and even, has an attached waterpark, Boulder Beach.

A man and a woman are riding their bikes on a cyclocross course in the fall.

More of the biking type? Sandpoint has several biking trails that entertain both the beginner and the extreme bikers. Get your GoPro ready and make your own action film. These trails range from 2.1 miles to a 28-mile loop, and are available starting in mid- to late spring.

Hikers often use these trails, as well, and others to see the gorgeous countryside. Just make sure you know your skill level. Some of the trails may be short, but steep, like the Maiden Rock Trail. Hiking up to the Maiden Rock, is only 2 miles up, with a round trip of 4 miles and gets really steep the closer to the rock you get. The view is worth it, if you are in good shape!

A wakeboarder is catching air in an early morning session as fog slowly lifts in the background.

Sandpoint has golfing, horseback riding and, my favorite, water sports including kayaking and rafting. If you are not looking for a trill and just want a peaceful paddle, Sand Creek is a good choice. Not only is the water calm and relaxing, you can see much of downtown Sandpoint from your kayak. For a more adventurous outing, the Priest River is good for beginning rafters with eight miles of Class II-III rapids to keep you busy. More experienced? The Moyie River is for you, with challenging Class III rapids that may turn into Class IV when the water is higher.

Add all this up with the usual winter sports and you have an outdoor lover’s delight. But for the ones looking for something else, Sandpoint is also known for its music festivals, craft breweries and, of course, a spa. Even a floating restaurant at the marina offers a unique experience in dining.

a beautiful rural countryside scene in northern Idaho.

There are several campgrounds and RV parks that offer beautiful views, B&B’s or luxury accommodations, and even glamping, for those who want a little more than just a tent. In short, Sandpoint, Idaho has something for everyone at anytime of the year. Of course, you can get there by flying into the Spokane airport, but did you know that Amtrak also could get you there? But that’s another adventure!

York, England

~ City of History

One of my favorite cities in England is York. Dating from around the 4th century, York is steeped in history, playing parts in Roman conquest, Viking settlements, William the Conqueror’s expansion, and featured predominantly in the War of the Roses and serving as the seat of Richard III. York is the story of Western Civilization.

Cliffords Tower

Arriving on a Saturday, we stayed at the Hilton York across the road from Cliffords Tower and the York Museums. An excellent hotel in terms of service and location, the Hilton is close to the Jorvik Viking Center, restaurants, and one of the bars of the city wall. One of the sayings in York is “A road is a gate, a gate is a bar, a bar is a pub.” There are lots of gates inside the wall. Four bars still serve the city and there are at least 2 pubs on every gate in modern York!

The main attraction in York and one of the most popular destinations in England is the Jorvik Viking Center. In 1976, archeologists started a dig on Viking ruins found while excavating of the foundation for a shopping mall. Now known as the Coppergate dig, extraordinary finds from a 10 century Viking village are on display at the Jorvik and seeing them is worth the price of admission.

The Church with the Smiling Ghost.

Another great tour is the Original Ghost Walk of York, believed to be the oldest Ghost Walk in the world. Leaving at 8 pm nightly from The King’s Arms Pub, and costing only £5 per adult and £4 for children, it is the best way to hear creepy stories from York’s past. The gentleman that lead the tour was excellent. His voice rose and fell in dramatic fashion and it actually felt as if he was taking you back in time.

There is so much to see and do in York, so you need more than just a couple of days. For more information on York, or to plan a trip, please contact me at carolyn@amberroadstravel.com or visit my website at AmberRoadsTravel.com!


The Jorvik Viking Center

Where Vikings Come Alive!

Jorvik Viking Center
My sons and I about to go into the Viking Center. You can see the sign in the upper left of the photo.

Between the years of 1976 and 1981, archeologists discovered the remains of a Viking village dating back from the 10th Century. The Jorvik (old Viking for York) Viking Center was built on the site of these excavations.  

Probably one of the most popular attractions in the UK, the Jorvik Viking Center allows you to step into the past and experience things the way they might have been a thousand years ago. First, see a recreation of the archeologist dig through a glass floor and have the Viking next to you to explain what you are seeing. In some places, the excavations went down 9 meters, although you don’t see the ruins found that deep in the Museum.

Because the soil in York was just the right mixture of moist and peaty, objects found in the area are remarkably preserved. Wooden timbers were preserved, which is unusual, as most building wood from that time period would have rotted away anywhere else. The soil also preserved seeds, pollen, diet substances, and other substances that gives us information about what the climate, health, pests, and growing seasons of life was like 10 centuries ago.

Next, get on the most amazing time machine (aka ride) that takes you through the village, staying true to the placement of the ruins and the artifacts they found there. Butcher and weavers huts were identified by animal bones and dye in the ground. Merchants were identified by the goods they may have sold or traded. The dig found items from all over the world, such as Roman tiles for roofs, indicating the Vikings had a wide range of trade routes established. All in all, over 2000 artifacts were found.

But I said the ride would take your through the village they way it might have been, and that means the smells weren’t left out. As you ride, you smell all sorts of smells that, well let’s just say, a modern person may not be familiar with, such as the butchering of meat melding together with dye, blacksmith fire, rotting fish, and all those outdoor bathrooms! Yes, the smell of poo is included on the tour for your enjoyment!

After you come back to the present, actual finds from the digs are on display. Ancient ice skates, broaches, even the only Viking sock ever found are in the museum. Shards of pottery, coins, cooking utensils and knives, as well as beads, cloak closures and combs allow you to see the ordinary lives of every day Vikings. The children of the past have something in common with today’s kids. They had their own version of the Fidget Spinner! And it makes you wonder why quite a few of these items were found in Viking Toilets, including the toys.

During my time at the Jorvik Viking Center, I had pleasure in seeing a glimpse of the past and it helped me learn where my own ancestors came from and evolved in a changing world. I highly recommend a trip to York and the Viking Center. You won’t be disappointed.

For more information or to book a trip, email me at carolyn@amberroadstravel.com.