ALCATRAZ ISLAND, Calif. — With its fat seagulls, blinding sunshine and spectacular views, it's hard to imagine that Alcatraz Island was once home to one of the world's most infamous prisons.

Located 1 1/4 miles off the coast of San Francisco, the picturesque setting seems better suited to a vacation spot than the maximum-security penitentiary known as The Rock that once housed hardened criminals such as Al Capone.

Today the National Park Service operates Alcatraz as a tourist attraction, which draws about 1.4 million visitors a year, a fourth of them from foreign countries. Visitors can take a short ferry ride across San Francisco Bay and walk through the old prison cells, the lunchroom, other prison facilities and the military installations that predated the prison.

An excellent audiotape guide, as well as lectures by National Park Service rangers, helps bring to life what Alcatraz must have been like. Former inmates and guards discuss their typical routines, as well as their own specific memories.

There are also descriptions of some of the escape attempts, complete with sirens and other sound effects.

Some popular misconceptions are dispelled, including the accuracy of the "Bird Man of Alcatraz" character played by Burt Lancaster in the movie of the same name. And fear not: Contrary to popular belief, man-eating sharks do not circle the island.

Once outside the barracks, though, visitors are on their own — and must rely on a few placards and other signs along well-marked paths to identify buildings and sites, rather than any formal guide. Although some parts of the island are off limits, primarily for safety reasons, there is still a good deal of exploring to do. (Those with physical limitations may not be able to do everything, although some accommodations are made for the disabled.)

Visitors can walk along the water around the tip of the island near the remains of where guards' families — including their children — once lived, past the warden's now-burned-out house, the prison factory and by the old lighthouse. The prison yard, where inmates used to exercise and watch ships coming into the harbor, is open, too. There's also a protected bird sanctuary, which causes parts of the island to be closed seasonally.

Even today, the isolation that inmates at Alcatraz must have felt is palpable. Although San Francisco's landmarks are easily visible from the island's shores, a boat was really the only way to leave when the prison was operating.

A look outside also provides a powerful reminder of Alcatraz's role in American history after the prison closed in 1963. Painted on one of the building's exteriors are the words "INDIANS WELCOME" — a reminder of the island's 19-month occupation by American Indians.

In 1969, a group of American Indian activists sailed to the island and set up camp in hopes of increasing awareness of their causes. Federal authorities eventually removed the activists from the island, but Alcatraz is considered a seminal event in the development of the American Indian pride movement.

There is a small exhibit in a building near the dock where the ferry disembarks, as well as a documentary to watch. Visitors can also learn more about Alcatraz's previous incarnations as a military reservation and military prison. Although Alcatraz is best known for its role as a federal penitentiary, visitors would be remiss to pass on the chance to learn more about these parts of its history.

If you go to Alcatraz, buy your tickets days in advance and plan on coming early in the day. Ferries leave about every 30 minutes from San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf through midafternoon, and it is not unusual for them to sell out. It's also advisable to come in the morning, since the island gets crowded very quickly.

Although ferry tickets specify when you arrive at the Alcatraz, you can leave at any time, up until 4:30 p.m. when the last boat leaves. Also, dress warmly. The island can get cold because of the wind and water.

Tickets are available online and by phone through the Blue & Gold Fleet, the ferry contracted by the National Park Service to provide Alcatraz service.

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The cost, as of November 2001, was $13.25 for an adult with an audiotape tour, $9.25 without the tour, with discounts for children and seniors.

Blue & Gold also offers a pricier "Alcatraz After Dark" tour that is fully escorted and allows a nighttime glance of the island.

Visitors interested in seeing nearby Angel Island, which is known as the "Ellis Island of the West," can buy a combination ticket package that provides transportation to both islands.

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