California Spring Break

Last year, Rainer Jenss traveled around the world with his wife and two sons, and blogged about his experience here on Intelligent Travel. This year, he’s back with a new column that focuses on traveling with kids.

Alcatraz.JPGWhat is it about prisons that so intrigue us? Is it how just the thought of being incarcerated scares us to the core?  Maybe it’s because the stories of the inmates that correspond to the jail cells read like crime novels.  Come to think of it, is it a coincidence that one of Johnny Cash’s biggest selling albums was recorded in Folsom Prison?  Whatever the reason, it just might explain why one of San Francisco’s most popular tourist attractions is Alcatraz. In fact, I was denied the opportunity to visit the island every time I found myself in the city because I neglected to book a tour in advance. This time, I would not make the same mistake again.

We’ve just returned from the first family road trip since our yearlong round-the-world adventure ended last summer.  For this year’s spring break recess, we rented a car to drive from San Diego to San Francisco, visiting family and friends along the way. So I made sure by the time we pulled into the Bay Area, an 11:30am ferry reservation on Alcatraz Cruises for the following day was firmly in hand.

Suggesting one take a tour of Alcatraz is certainly no major revelation, but I would strongly advise that if you do have kids in tow, it’s really the one thing you don’t want to miss. I haven’t been on too many sightseeing trips with our children whose audio tours kept them as intensely interested as this one. Tales of the notorious criminals (Al Capone, Robert “The Bird Man” Stroud, et al) the penitentiary housed and the escape attempts that sprinkle its 29-year history are fascinating. The memorable 45-minute audio presentation included with admission even includes the chilling voices of actual correctional officers and prisoners who lived and worked on the Island between 1934 and 1963. The gray skies and misty weather that accompanied us during our excursion seemed to somehow add some ‘atmosphere’ to the whole experience, but it pretty much dashed any thoughts of checking out the 22-acre island’s historic gardens and abundant wildlife. But no matter how impressive these other attractions might be, it likely would have been anticlimactic for the boys after being enthralled by “The Rock’s” main draw.

Behind Bars.JPGOur spring break trip to the San Francisco Bay did not stop at Alcatraz. For me, the Bay Area’s biggest appeal derives from the plethora of activities so readily available to outdoor enthusiasts in and around the city. This includes hiking, biking, windsurfing, and lest we forget wine tasting! There’s also no shortage of dazzling scenery either: the Monterey Peninsula with its 17-Mile Drive; Napa and Sonoma Valley; Muir Woods and Stinson Beach; the rolling hills of the city and sea lions along Fisherman’s Wharf. Golden Gate Park certainly belongs in this category and there’re plenty of sights within it to keep you busy for quite a while. We strolled the Botanical Gardens and walked past the De Young Museum, which is currently concluding its run of housing the King Tutankhamen exhibit.

Our ultimate destination within the park was the California Academy of Sciences, one of the country’s newest natural history museums. Living just outside of New York City, we usually reserve visiting a museum for rainy weekends back home. But our friends who we were visiting strongly recommended it, even on a day with brilliant sunshine and warm temperatures. After our 3½ hour circuit through the $500-million building, I’ll now do the same.  Even though the admission fees seemed a bit steep–our family of four cost us almost $85–and the crowds are a factor, the academy’s innovative exhibits and thousands of plants and animals deliver the goods. And if the kids hadn’t run out of energy after traversing the impressive four-story rainforest just 30 minutes before closing, we would probably not have missed the planetarium which is also housed within this single structure. But as is the case with so many family vacations, you just can’t pack it all–and especially if the Golden State is your destination, don’t even try.  I’ll share some more of our California discoveries next week.

Photos: Rainer Jenss


  1. Julius
    September 2, 2012, 7:14 pm

    SAN FRANCISCO! One of the better cities in California, it’s hip and urban appeal is breath taking and the food is out of this world. If you enjoy colder weather I can see the appeal of going there often. I can’t stand being cold, even in the summer it is nippy! Santa Barbara, in Southern California is a great place to vacation and take your yourself and loved ones. Lots to do and see, the food, shopping and culture is also wonderful and very short drive from LA! The South Coast Inn ( is close to the beach and so elegant, I just stayed there last weekend and I just have to boast!

  2. Justine Cricks
    February 18, 2011, 5:26 am

    I never thought of going to Alcatraz. Well, maybe my parents and my brothers would want to go. I know my brothers would say, “Whoa! Cool! Rad! Awesome!” I, on the other hand, would want to stay in the beach, playing under the sun with my friends. I’m not saying that going to Alcatraz for a tour is a bad idea, okay? I just don’t want to miss out the fun! I already had a pain free bikini wax, bought a bikini with my friends and all that. We’re set for the fun at the beach!

  3. Sonoma County Tours
    November 15, 2010, 5:36 am

    loved to read your post… & i wish to be there as i don’t enough resources yet but one day i’ll accomplish my dreams (this one and some other places as well) :)

  4. Roberto
    April 17, 2010, 10:58 pm

    I really enjoyed Alcatraz on my last visit to San Francisco. Splurge a little in the book shop on one of the many books they carry telling you more about the criminals who spent time there. Regarding the Academy of Science don’t miss the planetarium it’s the best one I’ve been to.

  5. imeye software
    April 17, 2010, 11:34 am

    I would love to go Alcatraz island one day

  6. hotel
    April 17, 2010, 8:30 am

    I read the post.

  7. enrolled agent exam preparation
    April 16, 2010, 9:00 pm

    Wow! Alcatraz! I wonder if any of those escape stories and movies were true… Since you’ve been there, Any idea about it?