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Thrills and chills on after-dark Alcatraz tour on Astini News

The night tour of Alcatraz Island makes the hair on the back of your neck prickle long after the three-hour trip has ended. But the eerie thrill is worth it, if not only for the million-dollar view of the San Francisco skyline -- a spectacular light-show dancing in the distance.

Our boat leaves Pier 33 at 7:05 p.m., while the sun is about to set over the Golden Gate Bridge, painting a ghostly silhouette of the infamous structure.

Located in the San Francisco Bay just two kilometres from shore, the steep cliffs of Alcatraz appear almost instantly. As the 10-hectare island draws near, a foreboding begins to build.

The facility, now a national park, eventually emerges as the towering presence it is, engulfing almost every inch of the island.

Visitors get many extras during the evening tour of the infamous prison.

These include a live narrator for the short ferry ride who regales us with the history of the facility, first built as a U.S. military fortress in the late 19th century. A guided tour follows, from the dock to the cellhouse up the hill.

Themed-talks are given throughout the evening, presented by knowledgeable guides, and often conducted outdoors, on the grounds.

Day and night tourists explore the cellhouse at their own pace, using an audio tour of former prisoners, sharing their memories.

Stepping off the boat is like leaping back in time, to a place where only the meanest, most dangerous of society's dregs once lived. But unlike the convicts who would have also docked in this same spot, we're greeted by a cheery voice saying: "Welcome to the Rock." We begin the trek to the cellhouse, walking the very path of prisoners on their way to what many have called Hell-catraz. They saw what we see, heard the birds we hear, and smelled the sweet floral scent we smell. Except their's was the final moments of freedom, headed for life within the walls of the inescapable and the country's toughest prison.

Alcatraz was renowned for its strict discipline and unpleasant solitary confinement in dingy, dark isolation cells we would soon visit.

First stop is the warden's majestic house on the cliff, next to the lighthouse. We walk through a tunnel dating back to when Alcatraz served as a fort in 1859. As we make our way up to the cellblock, there's an overwhelming and unexpected scent of fresh flowers, revealing the beautiful plant-life nurtured for nearly 150 years on the island.

The switch-back trail meanders through a protected bird sanctuary and hundreds of floral species, which provide the wildlife with a natural nesting cover. Many of the flowers were brought here over the years by the wives of soldiers and prisoners. In fact, being a gardener was among the most coveted prison jobs on the island.

Alcatraz means pelican in Spanish, a reference to the island's first inhabitants that still fly about today.

Once we reach the jailhouse, I look up and notice a lone pelican staring back, perched in the window like a prisoner who can never leave, long after the last inmates escaped when the facility closed in 1963.

It operated for 29 years as a maximum-security federal penitentiary, during which time famous prisoners incarcerated here included gangster Al (Scarface( Capone, George (Machine-gun) Kelly and Robert Franklin Stroud, also known as the Birdman of Alcatraz.

I take a turn sitting in the "hole" -- the solitary confinement cell located in D Block. Even with the heat and lights on, and the comforting buzz of tourists, squatting inside the tiny room, it's easy to conjure the stench and isolation of the prisoners -- so close to the city that inmates reported they could hear the voices of women laughing on festive nights such as New Year's Eve.

Alcatraz has captured the imagination of filmmakers, and one of the most famous was Escape from Alcatraz with Clint Eastwood, which dramatizes possibly the only escape, after inmates used spoons to tunnel their way through their cells. Seeing those rooms -- with the holes intact behind the vents -- sent chills through my body.

Prison officials never bothered to repair this piece of history because they knew Alcatraz was closing, and no one would ever be sent to these particular cells again.

The creepiest part of the evening is the outdoor tour and talk on the

famous escape attempts. It's dark now and most of us are plenty spooked following our visit to the prison. Our imaginations run wild, especially as the guide points out significant landmarks scaled by various prisoners willing to risk their lives for freedom. We see where they might have jumped into the freezing, rough waters of the Bay, to make a near-impossible swim to shore. Or drown.

It's so vivid, you can almost hear the ghosts of prisoners whispering in the night. I'm sure it's just the wind blowing through the trees.

Or is it?

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If You Go

- Getting there: All access to the island is through Alcatraz Cruises LLC -- a private ferry company under contract by the U.S. National Park Service. Departs from Pier 33 at Fisherman's Wharf.

- Book early: Tickets are limited, so it's a good idea to buy in advance, especially during summer and holidays. They can be sold out up to a week in advance.

- Cost: Adult night tours costs $33; day tour $26

- How to book: Go to

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