On a beautiful day, with not a cloud in the sky, little white-crested breakers skimmed across the bay and the boat rocked gently.
Even before setting foot on the dock, it was easy to see why the forbidding island of Alcatraz was chosen as the prison you’d never leave unless the authorities wanted you to.
And on the excellent audio tour – with the voices of real guards and inmates – you learn just what life on The Rock was like for Al Capone, Robert “The Birdman” Stroud et al.
Chillingly, by standing inside one of the punishment cells and stretching out your arms to touch each side, you get a sobering taste of it.
And seeing the cell where guards were held when prisoners turned the tables during one rare escape attempt and then opened fire through the bars, is quite horrible.
Thankfully, it’s just a 15-minute trip back to one of America’s most beautiful, fascinating cities.
No visit to this metropolis packed with California cool could pass without a shot on the clanging cable cars. They’re so much fun – like the most exhilarating rollercoaster – it seemed we were never off them. Yes, they are addictive, and the best way to tackle those hills.
At $7 a ride, the best value is to get a MUNI pass that lets you ride them and any of the buses and streetcars for just $12 a day.
Avoid the queues at the terminals by waiting at a stop one or two further up as the conductor usually leaves a few gaps. And try to grab one of the 16 spaces standing on the outside – but hang on!
The period cars are quirky and full of character, and the same could be said of our super-central base. The Cornell Hotel de France is a little piece of Paris in the heart of San Francisco.
It’s a classic old property with our bay-windowed room – so typical of the properties throughout the city – looking down on a Powell Street cable car stop.
Each floor is dedicated to a different French artist (ours was Chagall) and each room is individually styled with artwork and ceiling murals.
It’s just two blocks from shopping mecca Union Square and, with friendly staff and even a resident pooch, it felt anything but a soulless chain.
Another bargain is to grab a CityPASS. It gives you three days of unlimited transport rides as well as admission, over any nine days, to four of the city’s best attractions.
Two are right at the famous wooden Pier 39 – the Aquarium of the Bay and a Blue & Gold Fleet bay cruise – with the massive fun and hands-on Exploratorium just minutes along the Embarcadero.
But it’s also worth getting out of the city to explore, and the other attraction, the California Museum of Sciences, is a short bus ride away at Golden Gate Park.
We added to the fun by exploring the historic park, whizzing around on a 90- minute Segway tour. It’s informative and a good laugh.
Close by is the Presidio, the former military base, where the impressive red-brick barracks have been converted to all sorts of different uses including the fascinating Walt Disney Family Museum.
Minutes away is the Golden Gate Bridge and walking it proved irresistible.
Looking back to Alcatraz and the city is a sight that lives long in the memory.
Having been on it, there was a chance to get under it, too. Adventure Cat has fabulous sailing trips where you even get to help haul the catamaran’s sail up.
The city is, of course, full of different neighbourhoods and although Chinatown may be the most famous, we got a flavour – literally – of the North Beach/Little Italy area on a scrumptious and fact-packed foodie walking tour.
The café culture is just a delight, as are the brilliant book shops such as City Lights, the hang-out of the Beat Generation.
We couldn’t resist one last lingering look at the city and there’s nowhere better than the famous Coit Tower.
It may be a fair old climb, but the panorama reminded us why so many leave their heart in San Francisco.
P.S. The crookedest street, Lombard Street, is a marvel, and a beautiful one too with flower beds lining the bendy route. A Powell and Hyde cable car will take you straight to the top for the photographs you won’t want to miss.