Alcatraz Agave Trail - Port Chicago National Memorial - Villa Montalvo


Time Travel

Not all history lessons are about memorizing dates. Head outside and learn a thing or two about the Bay Area's storied past. No pop quizzes!

Alcatraz Agave Trail

Jail Birds and Prison Plants

Take a walk on Alcatraz's wild side: Escape the crowds and head for the Agave Trail, only open for a few months every autumn and winter between bird nesting seasons. The trail just opened last weekend, making now a good time to go on a leisurely half-mile stroll that offers superb southerly views of San Francisco and has many points of interest spinning tales of the prison's colorful past. The original inhabitants of Alcatraz were birds, and today black-crowned night herons, cormorants, and snowy egrets are residents of the Rock. Pass spiky agave originally planted by the Army to thwart invaders (and later became a thorn in the side for prisoners plotting to break free). Continue on to the western slope of the island beside the cell house to see Alcatraz's beautiful, award-winning gardens. Created in the 1930s by the warden's secretary, Fred Reichel, the gardens gave a few lucky inmates the opportunity to work outside the prison, tending to the flora. Today, plentiful plant species fill the landscape, including fig trees, rock roses, seaside daisies, wallflowers, and bachelor's buttons. It's a great escape!

TIP: We Players is performing Hamlet on the Rock through Nov. 21. This unique theatrical event starts the moment you board the ferry, and continues on parts of the island ordinarily closed to the public.

Adult tickets to Alcatraz are $26. Make reservations at The Agave Trail starts just south of the ferry dock. No dogs.

Port Chicago National Memorial

New Park on the Block

Of the 392 national parks, Port Chicago is number 392; the newest addition to the system is only a year old. Heard of it? Located on the Concord side of Suisun Bay, Port Chicago played an important role as a WWII depot and cargo facility, where munitions were loaded for U.S. troops fighting in the Pacific. On a July night in 1944 something went very wrong at the loading dock: Multiple explosions—including a massive one—rocked the naval magazine, leaving 320 men dead; 202 were African-American. It was the worst home-front disaster of the Second World War. Get an in-depth view of what this place was like and the dramatic aftermath of the tragedy by taking the 90-minute tour of the national memorial on the shore of the Delta. Because Port Chicago is still an active military base, visiting hours are limited and reservations must be made at least two weeks in advance. Tours are by shuttle, and you'll stop at points of interest before disembarking to wander the memorial site and learn how Port Chicago was in many ways a catalyst for ending segregation. The stories of loss, courage, and friendship are lessons unto themselves.

To visit Port Chicago call the John Muir National Historic Site at 925-228-8860. Reservations must be made at least two weeks in advance and you'll be asked to provide proper identification, as it's an active military base. No dogs.

Villa Montalvo

Montalvo Mingle

Before Hearst Castle there was Villa Montalvo, a 175-acre estate tucked into the hills outside Saratoga and built for one of the Bay Area's most wealthy and prominent bachelors, U.S. Sen. James Phelan. Montalvo's expansive grounds include 2.5 miles of hiking trails winding up and down and all around the canyon (the Lookout Trail to Lookout Point makes a nice 1.5-mile round-trip hike). And if you want to learn about the history of the villa, including its literary Spanish influence, take a free tour of the grounds. Docents lead a 30-minute walk around the estate, sharing stories of the never-dull Phelan, who was also a three-term mayor of San Francisco. Manicured gardens are flanked by tall-and-skinny Italian cypress and giant blue atlas cedars, while ornate concrete benches are throwbacks to the famous pool parties Phelan would throw. A patron of the arts, Phelan ensured that Villa Montalvo would continue its support of music, literature, architecture and other creative works. Today, it's home to a highly respected arts residency program and a fantastic concert venue. Exhibits and sculptures can often be found on the grounds. Estate of the art!

The docent-led walks of the grounds happen on the first and third Saturdays of the month from April to October (the final tour is Oct. 16). Visit for more information and directions. No dogs.

Ultimate Antarctica

It's the land of Shackleton, 24-hour sunlight, and marching penguins. Antarctica isn't your standard island vacation—it's a transforming journey through the basic fundamentals of life: water, ice, rock, land, and sky. The southernmost continent's landscape is sculpted for explorers, and can be the adventure of a lifetime. But don't just view Antarctica from a cruise ship—experience its mysteries and surreal beauty with experts who will give you up-close encounters with giant ice shelves, craggy mountains, and iconic wildlife. The locally based Adventure Center specializes in small-group expeditions to Antarctica, and it's offering the deal of a lifetime: Book by Dec. 1 and get 50% off for your companion (offer may end sooner if the trip sells out). Going solo? Adventure Center has a perfect solution for solo travelers, matching them with others of the same gender to share accommodations, keeping costs down. Some Antarctica trips don't even allow you to get off the boat. But with Adventure Center you'll kayak among quiet glaciers, hike ashore among emperor penguins, and take a Zodiac excursion up-close to leopard seals and minke whales. You can also strap on cross-country skis and glide over virgin snow, taking photos of the world's most pristine beauty. The best time to go to Antarctica is coming up: Trips start Jan. 11 (the south pole's summer).

TIP: Book your Antarctica expedition with Adventure Center and get 50% off a companion booking (offer ends Dec. 1 or when the ship sells out, and is based on availability at time of booking).

Adventure Center specializes in small-group hiking, cycling, and wildlife adventures around the world. Visit their Web site to browse a portfolio of trips of a lifetime.

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