The rocks of the bay

Alcatraz is not the only island in San Francisco Bay. The former prison has neighbours boasting thriving wildlife and superb views, says Anthony Lambert

"Show the lurve," suggested the photographer's assistant. Coup-les and families paused above the gangway to have their pictures taken before boarding the ferry to a place completely devoid of it. An hour later we were staring at portraits of hard-faced inmates on the small island of Alcatraz, once the most feared prison in the US. The ten-minute journey across the cold waters of San Francisco Bay had brought us to the dock used by all traffic to the island since its inauguration by the military in 1853.

"Show the lurve," suggested the photographer's assistant. Coup-les and families paused above the gangway to have their pictures taken before boarding the ferry to a place completely devoid of it. An hour later we were staring at portraits of hard-faced inmates on the small island of Alcatraz, once the most feared prison in the US. The ten-minute journey across the cold waters of San Francisco Bay had brought us to the dock used by all traffic to the island since its inauguration by the military in 1853.

We walked up from the dock past the balconied barracks and guardhouse, its port designed around the same principles as a medieval castle to create a rectangular "killing field". The oldest building on Alcatraz, it predates the Civil War, when it held Confederate sympathisers and prisoners. Taking a zigzag path up the hill past the eucalyptus and Monterey pines that were planted by the army to soften the bare rock, we reached the white, concrete cellhouse of 1912. It was converted from military prison to penitentiary for the arrival of the first felons in 1934.

Alcatraz dominates the view from much of San Francisco, its outline resembling a warship. Its forbidding appearance must have chilled even the likes of Al Capone and George "Machine Gun" Kelly, men whose behaviour was so incorrigible that they required maximum security and were given minimum privileges. Even the right to work had to be earned, the incentive being that you spent only 18 hours a day in your cell instead of 23. The cells measured eight feet by five, with a tiny sink, folding table and chair, two shelves and a bed. Talking was forbidden at any time.

A prisoner on the indispensable cellhouse audio guide tells you that New Year's Eve was the worst night of the year: if a southerly wind was blowing, prisoners could hear the sounds of revelry and laughter from the San Francisco Yacht Club. "There was never a day when you didn't see what you were missing," said Leon "Whitey" Thompson, who looked out of the dining room window one day and saw the first woman he had seen in five years.

"The Rock" is one of those infamous places, like Robben Island and Colditz, of which we all have a mental picture, often shaped by films. Escape from Alcatraz was based on the only successful break-out, when Frank Morris (played by Clint Eastwood) and two accomplices devised a plan of astonishing ingenuity to burrow out of their cells into a utility corridor and up on to the cellhouse roof. Their nocturnal absence was disguised by dummies so convincing that correctional officers doing the rounds saw nothing amiss. By the time the ruse was discovered, the three had slipped into the water with improvised flotation bags. They were never heard of again, and though the treacherous currents of the bay are thought to have put paid to their bid for freedom, their bodies were never found.

The strong currents were noted in the log of the first European to sail through the Golden Gate channel. In 1775, the Spanish navigator Don Juan Manuel de Ayala spotted the opening during a gap in the notorious coastal fogs that swirl around the entrance to the bay. Of the islands Manuel charted and named, only what is now known as Brooks Island still looks the same; the 373-acre rock off Richmond is a regional preserve because of its colony of breeding terns.

Yerba Buena Island has altered beyond all recognition. Thousands of Californians spend less than a minute a day on the island as they commute across the eight-mile long Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge; the rocky promontory forms the bridge's midway point and is pierced by a road tunnel. Spoil from the tunnel was used to build an adjacent artificial island, which was given the name of Robert Louis Stevenson's best-known novel. Claimed to be the world's largest man-made island, at 400 acres Treasure Island was built in 1938 by the Army Corps of Engineers,. The soldiers constructed a sea wall and filled it in with rubble.

The island's purpose was to accommodate the 1940 Pageant of the Pacific. This World's Fair was planned to coincide the with the completion of the Golden Gate and Bay bridges and to celebrate San Francisco's emergence from the Depression by promoting trade within the Pacific basin. After 17 million visitors had passed through the Golden Gate International Exposition of 1939-40, Treasure Island became Pan American Airways' Sea Clipper seaplane terminal for flights from the Pacific. Later in the war, the navy took over the island, and continued to use it until 1993. One of the World's Fair buildings was used as the set for a seaplane airport in Steven Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark, but access to the island remains limited.

The best antidote to San Francisco's traffic and urban bustle is a visit to the largest of the bay's islands. To visit the national park of Angel Island, my son Gabriel and I hired bikes on the waterfront at Fisherman's Wharf and took the ferry from Pier 41. To the west, the Golden Gate Bridge was wreathed in the mist that often shrouds the entrance to the bay. Rounding a wooded headland on the island, the ferry eased into Ayala Cove, an idyllic curve of oak-fringed sand named after Juan Manuel de Ayala. Beyond the cove's cafe and small shop, a visitor centre has been set up in a two-storey clapboard house built to quarantine soldiers returning from the Philippines after the Spanish-American war of 1898. Videos and displays provide an arresting perspective on US occupation: the 750-acre site had been home to Coast Miwok indians and their ancestors for about three millennia by the time Manuel christened it Isla de los Angeles. Soon after the US wrested California from Mexico in 1848, Angel Island was commandeered by the military and not relinquished until the 1960s.

Today it is a rarity in the US - a car-free zone. Apart from a few rangers' vehicles and a tractor-hauled "tourist train", cyclists and walkers have the island and its five-mile perimeter road to themselves. Even the small, sandy beaches are deserted on weekdays. It's a climb through the trees out of Ayala Cove, and we were soon looking down on the bay where inbound ships were once fumigated if they were suspected of carrying diseases that might threaten the city.

Angel Island has unrivalled views over the Golden Gate Bridge, as well as several ghostly army camps. The first we reached, Camp Reynolds, is the oldest, and also the most picturesque. The island's gravel road curves past a damask-coloured barn for mules and the bakery, before reaching the well-sheltered parade ground, lined by wooden barracks that once held an infantry company of 200 men. St Mary's church, which doubled as a school, is set among the woods of native trees such as poison oak, madrono and bay manzanita.

Swooping down the switchback road along the southern coast, San Francisco looked ethereal in the mist, the shoreline periodically obliterated to leave only the hills of the city rising hazily out of the cloud. Footpaths through the sagebrush that covers the hills lead inland off the coast road to the 788ft summit of Mount Livermore, named after Caroline Livermore, the environmentalist who led the campaign to save Angel Island from development. Descending the steepest hill, we skidded to a halt to investigate an unsightly tangle of steel and concrete - all that's left of San Francisco's 1954 Nike missile defence system. The dismantling of the three underground silos in 1962 brought military use of Angel Island to a close.

The eucalyptus, Monterey pines and Douglas firs planted by the military along the east coast screened Fort McDowell from view until we were almost upon it. The camp grew during both wars to become the largest complex on the island and once had a mess hall to feed 1,600 soldiers; these buildings provided the last roof over the heads of tens of thousands of troops before they left for active service in the Pacific. Very different emotions would have been felt half a mile up the road at the Immigration Centre on China Cove, which processed applications from 1910 to 1940. At the west coast equivalent of New York's Ellis Island, would-be immigrants sometimes waited a year or more while their eligibility was checked. Investigations into family claims were prolonged by the destruction of the city's records in the firestorm that followed the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, when the ground "rose and fell like an ocean at ebb tide". Most of the applications were from Chinese immigrants desperate to escape poverty.

Leaving Angel Island by the short ferry ride to Tiburon on the north side of the bay, we cycled back along dedicated bike routes to Sausalito and across the Golden Gate Bridge, pausing for a picture with our heads in the clouds, "showing the lurve".

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Three airlines fly non-stop from London Heathrow to San Francisco: British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com), United Airlines (0845 844 4777; www.unitedairlines.co.uk) and Virgin Atlantic (08705 747747; www.virginatlantic.com). In winter, you could pay as little as £300 return.

GETTING AROUND

Bikes and helmets can be hired from Blazing Saddles (001 415 202 8888; www.blazingsaddles.com) for $7 (£4) an hour or $28 (£16.50) a day. Ferries to Alcatraz and Angel Island are operated from Pier 41 by Blue & Gold Fleet (001 415 705 5555; www.blueandgoldfleet.com.

com). Day tours cost $16 (£9.50), childrens tours $10.75 (£6.50), evening tours $23.50 (£14), evenings for children $14.25 (£8.50).

Hornblower Cruises & Events (001 415 788 8866; www.hornblower.com) operates champagne brunch cruises of San Francisco Bay from Pier 33, which cost $59 (£35) including champagne.

MORE INFORMATION

California Tourism (0906 577 0032, calls charged at £1.50; www.visitcalifornia.com).

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