Visiting Alcatraz

Alcatraz Island

Alcatraz Island

Alcatraz Island is the most visited attraction in San Francisco, entertaining over 1.3 million visitors every year. The Los Angeles Times declared it the seventh most popular landmark in the world (06.16.15).


Every day one boat after another leaves Pier 33 loaded with Alcatraz-bound tourists who are curious to visit the famous prison, learn the notorious history. As a San Francisco resident I had already visited here, then returned one day in 2014 to study the setting for a scene in my novel.


How Alcatraz began. After gold was discovered in California in 1848, prospectors, businessmen, and families arrived here in droves. It was determined then that the increased value–millions of dollars worth of mined gold–created a need for defense and protection.

Alcatraz dock

Alcatraz dock

Thereafter it became a:

  1. Fortress and military installation (1853-1933) ;
  2. Federal Penitentiary (1933-1963)
  3. Native American protest occupation (1964, 1969-1971)
  4. U.S. National Park (1972-present)
Alcatraz cell block

Alcatraz cell block

Read more history, overview here.


Touring “The Rock” requires  reservations and involves a fun ten-minute boat ride on the San Francisco Bay.


More about touring here.



Visitors take a self-guided tour with audio tapes narrated by prison guards. You can stay at the island all day until the last boat departure, but most people stay a few hours.


Alcatraz cell

Alcatraz cell

In addition to being a tourist prison island, Alcatraz (the Spanish word for “pelican”) is also a prominent site for nesting birds; and has tide pools, sea mammals and other wildlife, even glowing millipedes.


The day we were there we saw Anna’s hummingbirds, a variety of sparrows, plenty of gulls and cormorants.


National Park Service nature info here.

Glowing millipedes on Alcatraz here.


The boat drops you off at the dock, a ranger gives you an overview of the facility and the rules. There’s a steep walk up to the prison, passing by old military gunnery, the water tower and guard towers, other old buildings, and gardens.


Alcatraz scaled model at Pier 33, Jet (in pink)scoping it out

Alcatraz scaled model at Pier 33. Jet (in sunglasses) scoping it out.

All the photos here are from that October day when I went to observe and take notes. Golden Gate Graveyard readers will recognize some of these sights from the Alcatraz scene.


Once you get up to the cell blocks, you can walk around inside the prison, see where prisoners showered, slept, and ate. Outside you view the warden’s half-burned house, the lighthouse, beautiful views of San Francisco and other sites.


Angel Island from Alcatraz

Angel Island from Alcatraz

Having written and researched a lot of history about San Francisco for this novel, I find two things especially fascinating:  over the years once-serious facilities, like Alcatraz, have turned into frolicking tourist attractions. And how curious it is to witness visitors’ intrigue and animation at this decrepit and defunct old prison.


The prison has been extensively featured in books (ahem), films, video games, TV series, and more. A popular new Alcatraz-related attraction is the Escape Alcatraz Drop Ride at the San Francisco Dungeon. It is a stomach-dropping ride simulating an attempted escape.


Alcatraz Control Room

Alcatraz Control Room

All modern-day Alcatraz folklore stems from the inescapability of this maximum security prison. It was long touted as the place from which no man ever left alive.


But is that true? Over 50 years after three prisoners escaped and their bodies were never found, there is still speculation and “Search for the Truth” documentaries. I recently watched a 1979 film starring Clint Eastwood called “Escape from Alcatraz.” It’s pretty good, shows life on The Rock and is based on the actual escape.


For an old prison that hasn’t seen a prisoner in over half a century, Alcatraz sure is a lively place. I’m happy it makes for good fiction.


Alcatraz view of San Francisco

Alcatraz view of San Francisco



Photo credit: Athena Alexander


Golden Gate GraveyardIf you haven’t bought Golden Gate Graveyard yet, it is available in paperback ($20) or digital format ($6.99). Buy a copy for yourself or a friend…but whatever you do:  stay legal.

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The Mission Dolores Cemetery, San Francisco

Mission Dolores, San Francisco

Mission Dolores, San Francisco

The oldest building in San Francisco, the Mission San Francisco de Asis, more commonly known as Mission Dolores, was built in San Francisco in 1776.


In the back, behind a white adobe wall, is the old cemetery. It is one of the quietest spots in this urban sprawl.


Between 1769 and 1833, 21 Spanish missions  were established by Franciscan priests throughout what was later to become the state of California. The sixth mission to be founded was the San Francisco one. The missions were the origins of the state’s communities.


Mission San Francisco De Asís

Old Mission on left, Basilica on right. Photo: Robert A. Estremo, courtesy Wikipedia.

More information about the missions.


The old San Francisco Mission has a small chapel, museum, cemetery, and tiny gift shop; the basilica next door hosts regular Catholic church services. As a city, state, and national historical landmark, it is also a popular destination for tour buses.


Original adobe walls, inside the Mission Dolores

Original adobe walls, inside the Mission Dolores

History of Mission Dolores here.


Mission Dolores, 1856. Courtesy Wikipedia.





The chapel is popular and interesting, decorated and devoted. But it is busy with tourists and sounds echo.


Chapel interior. Courtesy Wikipedia

The cemetery, however, is hushed–with old rose bushes, palm trees, birds, and vibrant sunshine. This is where I like to be.


There are only two cemeteries in San Francisco, this tiny plot is one of them. It was originally much bigger.


Mission Dolores Cemetery

Mission Dolores Cemetery

Today the earthquake-rippled sidewalks still lead you down a path of centuries-old gravestones. It holds the markers of San Francisco’s pioneers, leaders, old residents. There is also a revered sculpture of Father Junipero Serra.


I like to linger here among the broken graves with worn-off names, quietly listening to the sound of the chickadee singing overhead, feeling the penetrating warmth of the sun.


Mission Dolores Cemetery

Mission Dolores Cemetery

Sometimes I think about the people who shaped this city, sometimes I think about Alfred Hitchcock who filmed a scene from “Vertigo” right here, and sometimes I wonder how long it will be before my parking time runs out.


Photo credit: Jet Eliot unless otherwise specified


Golden Gate GraveyardYou can read more about Mission Dolores in my newly released mystery novel. Purchase here or at Amazon or any other major book retailer.



Remembering Pearl Harbor Day

USS Arizona Memorial, Pearl Harbor

USS Arizona Memorial, Pearl Harbor

It was 75 years ago today when the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred, launching the United States into World War II.


I visited this Hawaiian harbor last month.  Headquarters of the U.S. Pacific Fleet and still a U.S. naval station, it was fortunately much quieter than “the day that will live in infamy.”


USS Arizona, Oahu

USS Arizona, Oahu

On December 7, 1941, the United States was hit by an extensive Japanese surprise aerial attack on Oahu, Hawaii. An initial wave of 183 Japanese aircraft, launched from six aircraft carriers, attacked the U.S. naval base.  A half hour later a second wave of 167 aircraft stormed in.


Within 90 minutes 2,403 Americans were killed, 1,178 were wounded.


Here the USS Arizona battleship was bombed and sunk.  It violently exploded, tearing the ship in half, instantly entombing 1,177 military people on board.

1930’s, USS Arizona. Courtesy US Navy, Wikipedia.


USS Arizona, sinking, on Dec. 7, 1941. Courtesy Wikipedia.






Today you can take a navy boat shuttle across the peaceful harbor waters to the site of the memorial.


Inside the USS Arizona

Inside the USS Arizona

Built in 1962 and designed by Alfred Preis, the 184-foot-long (56 m) memorial straddles the battleship’s sunken hull. Visitors arriving by boat cross a walkway bridge and enter a large, open-air room.


Here you experience the whipping Pacific winds and see through an opening in the floor to the sunken battleship below where over 1,100 people lost their lives.

Diagram of the sunken USS Arizona and white (vertical, center) memorial

Diagram of the sunken USS Arizona and white (vertical, center) memorial

USS Arizona beneath the Memorial. Photo: J. Pastoric, USN. Courtesy Wikipeida.






In the next room is a sobering shrine, a marble wall inscribed with the names of the Arizona’s honored dead. “The Tree of Life” resides here too, it symbolizes rebirth and renewal.


On shore is a modern visitor center with many exhibits and displays.


Base of the gun turret on USS Arizona

Base of the gun turret on USS Arizona

Read more about the memorial here, and U.S. Park and visitor center here.


I found this moving memorial another striking reminder of the beauty of peace.


Photo credit: Athena Alexander (unless otherwise specified)




My recently released mystery novel, available for purchase here.

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China Camp

China Camp State Park, California.

China Camp State Park, California.

Named for the fishing villages that Cantonese families established here in the 1800s, China Camp is now a California State Park and a Historical Landmark.


Once a prime spot for harvesting shrimp, Chinese families lived busy lives here, and before that the Miwok Indians.


While there was much success and enterprise in the Chinese villages here in the late 1800s, harsh anti-Chinese laws put a strain on their life in the early 1900s, forcing most villagers to disperse.


Sampan, old Chinese shrimp-fishing boat

Sampan, old Chinese shrimp-fishing boat

The new century brought many more changes including polluted waters, loss of shrimp, and real estate development threats.


By the 1970s, Gulf Oil had big plans to build high-rise condominiums and commercial establishments.


But the residents of the surrounding area, San Rafael, California, with conservation groups and concerned citizens, protested. As a result, the land was sold to the state of California and a park was made.


In the early 21st century, when California had budget crises, there was more talk of closing the park. It was running on a deficit. But this too was resolved by the heroics of residents and community organizations, who formed nonprofits and raised funds, and saved the park.



Chinese characters: Wa Jen Ha Lio, the fishing village’s name

China Camp history and info here.


The park is 1,514 acres (613 ha) on a section of the San Francisco Bay. Little kids frolic on the shoreline, people jog and walk their dogs under the oak trees, picnic on the grass.


There is also hiking, biking, camping, kayaking, paddle boarding and other recreational activities. Gorgeous vistas across the bay, and a healthy list of birds, too.


Concession Stand (still open on weekends)

Concession Stand (still open on weekends)

The village buildings have been preserved, open to the public for viewing and educational touring.


Gentle volunteers run the gift shop selling t-shirts, and there’s an old-fashioned concession stand with a photo inside of John Wayne who filmed a movie here with Lauren Bacall (Blood Alley).


The beauty that is humans reaching out, making plans, and achieving their goals is here. There have been ups and downs for centuries here, subjugation and conflict, and I suppose there will be more too.


China Camp overview

China Camp overview

But for today, we breathe in the briny air and soak up the California sun.


Photo credit: Athena Alexander


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Fort Point, San Francisco

Golden Gate Bridge, Fort Point left center

Golden Gate Bridge, Fort Point left center

Tucked underneath the Golden Gate Bridge is a military fort once so important to the Bay Area that the bridge was designed and built around it.


Today it is a national and state historical landmark, the site of tours and recreation.


Fort Point and Golden Gate Bridge

Fort Point and Golden Gate Bridge

In 1853 the fort was strategically built at the entrance to the San Francisco Bay to withstand any foreign attack. It first served to protect during the Gold Rush of the 1850s, then later when the Civil War broke out.


Built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, there were seven-foot-thick walls; concrete fortifications; steel, breech-loading rifled guns; and 103  of the most formidable cannons of the time.


Fort Point entrance

Fort Point entrance

A shot was never fired and an attack never came, but over the years the fort would be used for various military needs.


Interestingly, this major military fortification hosted a family Halloween event last week, featuring a children’s costume parade.  Part of the mosaic of living in the 21st century.


More info at Wikipedia and National Park Service.


Fisherman at Fort Point

Fisherman at Fort Point

In the 1930s during the design phase of the bridge, there was much debate about what to do with the fort. Joseph Strauss, the lead engineer, recommended the bridge be built around the fort, so that is what was done.


Many movies and television shows have been filmed at this picturesque site, the most popular being Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” when Kim Novak jumped into the water and Jimmy Stewart rescued her.


Watch for another thrilling scene that takes place at Fort Point, in my new book available in a few days.

Golden Gate Graveyard

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

San Francisco Bay from Fort Point

San Francisco Bay from Fort Point


Touring the Balclutha

Balclutha in San Francisco Bay (Alcatraz in background)

Balclutha in San Francisco Bay (Alcatraz in background)

A three-masted ship built in 1886, the Balclutha sailed the world transporting cargo for nearly 50 years.


Now a museum moored in the San Francisco Bay, this rugged vessel takes visitors back to seafaring days.


Built in Glasgow, Scotland, the Balclutha made its maiden voyage to San Francisco in 1887.  It took 140 days and a crew of 26 men to transport the cargo of 1,650 tons of coal.

Original crew, 1887. Courtesy National Park Service

Coal, wine, whiskey and other European exports; wool from Australia and New Zealand; rice from Burma were all delivered to San Francisco in this ship.


Balclutha stern

Balclutha stern

The return trip to Europe included grain from San Francisco and timber from the Pacific Northwest.  Read more about the Balclutha here.


Balclutha Voyages map

Balclutha Voyages map

The ship passed through Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America 17 times in 13 years.



Balclutha deck

Balclutha deck (Golden Gate Bridge in background left)

A present-day walk on the long, wooden deck of this 301 foot (92m) ship is a humbling experience.


With 25 sails and a complex system of ropes and rigging, the ship traveled thousands of miles on treacherous seas completely propelled by wind.


The tallest mast is 145 feet (44m) high. Sailors climbed up there into the tangle of ropes to furl the sails, with gale-force winds and turbulent waters always threatening.


It was a tough life for sailors, working day and night on rough seas, sleeping on bunks or hammocks below deck in close quarters and filth, always away from family.

Aboard the Balclutha (then named the Star of Alaska), 1919. Courtesy National Park Service

In 1954 San Francisco’s Maritime Museum bought the ship, retired and  restored it, and in 1978 it was transferred to the National Park Service.


Still highly celebrated, the old ship today is regularly maintained and is in excellent shape.


In addition to daily public tours, the ship hosts overnight field trips for regional grade school students.


Balclutha rigging

Balclutha rigging (swimmer in water at far right)

Also, on the first Saturday night of every month San Franciscans board the Balclutha joining in free sing-alongs of old sea chanteys.


A hearty ship that continues to transport imaginations and share stories of maritime life, the Balclutha is a fun San Francisco adventure.


Balclutha Captain's Quarters

Balclutha Captain’s Quarters



Photo credit:  Athena Alexander unless otherwise noted




Out of Africa

Lion cubs

Lion cubs

“You know you are truly alive when you’re living among lions.”

~~ Isak Dinesen (aka Karen Blixen), “Out of Africa”


On the outskirts of Nairobi is Karen Blixen’s home, the author of “Out of Africa.”


She lived here from 1917 to 1931.  Under pseudonym Isak Dinesen, she later wrote the autobiographical story of her adventures while living and farming in Kenya.  Published in 1937, it was later made into an award-winning film.


Karen Blixen Museum 05.JPG

Karen Blixen Museum, courtesy Wikipedia.

Now a museum, I visited the house on my way out to the African bush.  It is modest, of bungalow architecture, with many verandas and surrounded by gardens.


Museum info here and here.


Here Karen Blixen and her husband owned and managed a 4,500 acre farm, including a 600 acre coffee plantation.  After they separated, she ran it on her own.  More about Karen Blixen here.


Reticulated Giraffe, Kenya

Reticulated Giraffe, Kenya

The novel is a series of ongoing true stories about living in the African savanna; learning and adapting to the culture of tribes people; and the ups and downs of running the farm.


More about the book here.


Karen Blixen Museum

Karen Blixen Museum, courtesy

Sparks of her remarkable character show through even a century later.  A single white woman (Danish) running a plantation in Kenya, living among people of a completely different culture.


She embraced the local tribes people, encouraged them, set up a school for them and their children.  Kenya was under British rule then, and this kind of harmonious spirit of cooperation was not the norm.


Giraffe and Zebra, Africa

Giraffe and Zebra, Africa

A century later her farm is gone, and the house is no longer a lengthy horse ride into town.  Instead it is in a suburb of sprawling Nairobi, named Karen, after her.


But as you drive out into the wilderness, finding grazing giraffe and stalking lions, you get an easy sense of her courage and spirit.


“When you have caught the rhythm of Africa” she wrote, “you find out that it is the same in all her music.”

Hippopotamus, Africa

Hippopotamus, Africa


Karen Blixen Museum, photo by Karl Ragnar Gjertsen, Wikipedia

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander (unless otherwise noted)

Baroness Karen Blixen

Karen Blixen. Courtesy museums.or.k, Nat’l Museums of Kenya


Green Roofs and the Environment

Academy of Science green roof, San Francisco

Calif. Academy of Sciences green roof, San Francisco

As we celebrate Earth Day in an era when human population and cities are burgeoning, it is inspiring to see the growing utilization of green roofs.


A few of the environmental virtues of green roofs:

  • Reduce building heating and cooling, stormwater run off
  • Create native plantings and provide natural habitat for wildlife
  • Filter pollutants out of air and rainwater
  • Lower urban air temperatures
  • Transform carbon dioxide into oxygen

Click here for more info.


Toronto, Canada; Mtn Equip Co-op Store (MEC) roof. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Defined as a building roof partially or completely covered with vegetation and a growing medium, green roofs have become a new trend in the 21st century…but they are not new.


Until the late 1800s, sod roofs were the most common roof on Scandinavian log houses.  Sod roofs, made with birch bark, kept the house insulated from cold and moisture.


Osterdalen farmstead, Norsk Folkemuseum, Oslo, Norway. Courtesy Wikipedia

More here about the old sod roofs.


Eventually sod roofs fell out of vogue, but were revived in the 1960s in Germany.  Today Germany has the most green roofs in the world; where they are part of the landscaping apprentice education.


Calif. Acad. of Sciences, SF. Courtesy Wikipedia.

San Francisco’s natural history museum, The California Academy of Sciences, was completely renovated in 2008 due to earthquake damage.  This gave them an opportunity for new environmental upgrades, including a green roof.


SF Academy of Science. Green roof, "rolling hills" in center.

SF Academy of Science. Green roof, “rolling hills” in center.

In the center of this large city, the roof provides 2.5 acres (1 h) of rolling hills and fields.  A living science exhibit, the roof is open to museum viewers.


I visited there recently and not only was there a terrific view of Golden Gate Park, but white-crowned sparrows serenaded and butterflies fluttered past me.


Courtesy Wikipedia

The Academy reports 30-35% less energy consumption than required.  More Calif. Academy Living Roof info here.


Green roofs vary depending on the depth of the planting medium.  The deeper the layer of earth, the more installation and maintenance is required.  A waterproof membrane and root barrier are always involved.


Shasta Daisy

Shasta Daisy

Rooftop container gardens, though beautiful, are technically not green roofs.


Learning how to maximize our urban centers into earth-friendly expanses will go a long way toward supporting and enhancing our growing population.

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander unless otherwise noted

Chicago City Hall. So many abundant flowering plants here, beekeepers harvest 200 lbs of honey/year. Courtesy Wikipedia




Amsterdam houses

Amsterdam houses

As the capital and most populated city in the Netherlands, Amsterdam is a spirited and unique city.


It is popular among tourists for many attractions:  museums, canals, the Anne Frank house, the red-light district, tulips, and cannabis coffee shops, to name a few.


This is a city of deep history, starting as a fishing village in the late 12th century, developing into one of the world’s most important ports in the 17th century, the Dutch Golden Age.  Today the region is a modern metropolitan center and cultural capital with a population of approximately 2.5 million.  Click here for more info.


Façade of the Rijksmuseum as seen from the Museum Square

Rijksmuseum facade, Amsterdam. Courtesy Wikipedia.

There are so many museums it was impossible to see them all in one week. We visited the city’s two most famous museums:  Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museum.


Other notable museums include:  Stedelijk Museum, the Hermitage Amsterdam, and Amsterdam Museum.


The Milkmaid by Johannes Vermeer (c. 1657-58). Courtesy Wikipedia.

The Rijksmuseum is an art and history museum, with an extensive collection of Dutch masters.  There are over 2,000 paintings from the Golden Dutch age celebrating Rembrandt, Vermeer, Hals, and many more masters.  More about Rijksmuseum here.


There is also an incredible art exhibit, including Dutch masterpieces, in the Amsterdam Schiphol Airport.  It’s free.


The back of the Van Gogh Museum

Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. Courtesy Wikipedia

The Van Gogh Museum, located near the Rijksmuseum, is the largest Van Gogh collection in the world (pronounced “Van Goff” by locals).


This was an incredible collection featuring the paintings, drawings, and letters of the famous former Amsterdam resident.  More info here.


Amsterdam bridge

Amsterdam bridge

My favorite part:  the waterways.  The canals were built in the early 17th century as an urban planning project.


In addition to the Amstel River, Amsterdam has three main canals that form a concentric circle around the city, from which many other canals stem.


The canal ring area is designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.  There are 60 miles (100 km) of canals, 90 islands, and 1,500 bridges.  Canal boat tours are readily available and affordable.

Amsterdam airphoto.jpg

Aerial photograph of Amsterdam canals. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Tulips abound at Keukenhof Gardens, less than an hour away from Amsterdam in the town of Lisse.  It is open for eight weeks from March to May, highlighting seven million tulip bulbs.


Amsterdam tourist boat (Athena's waving in background)

Amsterdam boat (Athena’s waving in background center)

Navigating through the city on boat or bicycle, visiting some of the richest art museums in the world, and enjoying the many elegant sites of Amsterdam is a true pleasure.



Photo credit:  Athena Alexander (unless otherwise noted)

Tyrannosaurus rex named Sue

Sue's skull, Chicago Field Museum

Sue’s skull, Chicago Field Museum

There is an astounding dinosaur fossil featured in the Chicago Field Museum, one of the world’s premiere  natural history museums.




Found in 1990 in South Dakota, this is the most complete and best preserved Tyrannosaurus rex speciman ever found.


The bones were  90% intact.  Only the red bones illustrated here were missing, and had to be replicated.


The skeleton of this T. rex is 67 million years old; and is 40 feet long (12.3m) and 13 feet tall (4m).  The dinosaur weighed more than seven tons and was 28 years old at the time of death, the oldest known T.rex.


Sue, Chicago Field Museum

Sue, Chicago Field Museum

Sue’s life (named after the Chicagoan paleontologist who found the first bones) has been thoroughly traced by scientists studying the bones and cellular structure.


Sue, Chicago Field Museum

Sue, Chicago Field Museum

By way of fossils found with Sue, from the late Cretaceous period, it was learned that South Dakota 67 million years ago was warm, lush, and seasonally damp — not at all like it is today.


The dinosaur’s range covered Alberta, Canada, and the western U.S. states of Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and both Dakotas.


Terradactyl, Chicago Field Museum

Terradactyl, Chicago Field Museum

Along with forests and  floodplains back then, huge rivers emptied into a sea that stretched from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.


Conifer, palm, and fern fossils accompanied Sue, along with bones of freshwater rays, sharks, lizards, and amphibians.  Read more about Sue’s life here.


The first bone was found by Sue Hendrickson, while working with a paleontology team in South Dakota.  They had just discovered a flat tire on their truck.  While her colleagues went into town to repair the tire, she explored parts of the cliffs that her team had not checked, and found a small bone, then another bigger one.


As the grand importance of this skeleton literally surfaced, ownership became an issue.  There were lawsuits, which eventually settled.  It was determined that the man who owned the property, owned the skeleton.  He chose to sell it at auction.



There was concern that the T.rex would be purchased by an individual and never shared.  So the Field Museum, who wanted to share it with the world, teamed up with many other organizations and private citizens, secured funding, and purchased it for $8.36 million.  More info here.


Courtesy wikipedia

Since the exhibit’s opening in May 2000, more than 16 million people have learned about this dinosaur and his or her life.  (Gender and cause of death were not determined.)


What a wonderful world it is that we have people devoting their lives to these studies; we have tools, education and organizations invested in learning more, and sharing.


Photo credit:  Athena Alexander except where noted

Courtesy wikipedia