Big & Small’s 2018 Year in Review

Italy, the Middle East, SE Asia, USA and the Balkans

Taking in one of Italy’s most glamorous views in Positano.

Big & Small did slightly less traveling in 2018. Still, we managed to do a complete trip around the globe—starting in Italy, we headed east, only to end up back in Italy for the close of the year. We slept in a total of 41 beds, and visited 8 new countries. Through it all, we made use of planes, trains, automobiles, trams, buses, tuk-tuks, scooters, and our own two feet to get across vast oceans and mountain ranges, charming old towns and coastal villages, and sprawling metropolises.

Here are our top 12 highlights—and all of our YouTube videos!—from Italy to the Balkans, the Middle East to SE Asia, and the USA to a few hidden treasures in between. Be sure to subscribe to our YouTube channel for regular updates on our adventures!

1. Puglia, Italy

Big & Small skipped the car and decided to rent scooters to explore the charming towns of Puglia, Italy, including the magical home of the fairytale-like trulli—Alberobello! Other towns we visited include: Ostuni, Cisternino, Locorotondo, Martina Franca, Carovigno, Costa Merlata, Torre Canne, San Vito dei Normanni, Monopoli, and Polignano a Mare. We had a few scooter problems along the way, but enjoyed the beauty of the countryside and the stunning coastline of one of Italy’s most underrated regions. Follow our journey!

2. Valbona to Theth Hike, Albania

We made it to the top of Albania!

After a quick change in travel plans, we decided to head into Albania from Montenegro. We had heard about the Valbona to Theth hike, a roughly 10-km trek that takes you between two tiny villages nestled deep in the heart of the Albanian Alps. This is the first time Big & Small hiked with everything on our backs, navigating rocky terrain as we made our way to the peak from Valbona before walking through dense forest on the knee-buckling descent to Theth. We managed to do this hike at the tail-end of the season in October, which meant we were rewarded with spectacular fall colors—swaths of bright reds and oranges blanketing the rugged mountain edges. We relished the fresh air, local food, and lack of WiFi. Just getting to this area of Albania is a journey in itself (including a ferry and some harrowing bus rides). But that means it remains rather unspoiled, and we sure hope it stays that way.

3. Sarajevo, Bosnia

Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, is a city where wars began and olympics were held. You’ll see stunning landscapes, sweeping mountains, and remnants of tragedy. Here are 10 things to do in Sarajevo, including taking the new cable car up Trebevic Mountain, walking along the abandoned Olympic bobsled track, trying local food and coffee, and learning about the city’s most harrowing moments under siege.

4. Dubai, United Arab Emirates

Dubai was Big & Small’s introduction to the Middle East, and it did not disappoint. We spent a whirlwind two days in this luxe desert city, hopping between glamorous malls, a 7-star hotel, faux beaches, and the tallest building in the world. But the best part was getting a taste of the much more modest Old Dubai.

5. The Amalfi Coast, Italy

Discover southern Italy’s Campania region and the jaw-dropping Amalfi Coast! This is the land of colorful, cliffside villages; narrow, nail-biting roads; stunning hidden beaches; and pure luxury living. But this doesn’t mean budget travelers can’t experience all the fun and fabulousness. Here are our tips on doing the Amalfi Coast on a budget.

6. Galle, Sri Lanka

A visit to this pearl of the Indian Ocean was an unexpected surprise. The island of Sri Lanka is a must-see, thanks to the kind and generous people, fresh and vibrant foods, beautiful beaches, calm waters, and the chance to meet sea turtles and a monkey in stylish pants! Our journey to the southern coast town of Galle began with a rickety but scenic train ride and took us to hidden beaches, a sea turtle hatchery, and the locals’ best breakfast spot.

7. Belgrade, Serbia

Belgrade, Serbia, is a mix of grit, decay, hipness, and luxury, and its dynamic energy is like no other European capital we’ve explored. Once the heart of the former Yugoslavia, the Balkans’ grandest city has a fascinating history—plenty of it dark—which can be found in everything from its scenic fortress overlooking the Sava and Danube Rivers to the shocking ruins of the NATO bombings of 1999. But Belgrade is just as much a bustling metropolis for the young at heart, with its great restaurants, sleek cafes, renowned nightclubs, newly renovated waterfront, and one of the coolest museums devoted to Serbian inventor Nikola Tesla.

8. Sofia & Seven Rila Lakes, Bulgaria

One of the most beautiful hikes in the Balkans.

The capital city of Bulgaria has a fascinating history interwoven with its diverse mix of influence from the Romans, Ottomans, and Greeks. Throughout the city center, you’ll walk through old Roman ruins; catch a full view of a mosque, Catholic cathedral, orthodox church, and synagogue all at once (the Square of Tolerance); and pass by dilapidated, Communist-era buildings sitting alongside hip new cafes and restaurants. In Sofia, we visited the Museum of Socialist Art, took a free food tour, drank some “miracle” mineral waters, and explored the nearby Vitosha Mountain. But our most memorable moment in Bulgaria was hiking the Seven Rila Lakes trail (part of the highest mountain range in the Balkans), one of the most breathtaking and rewarding hikes we’ve ever done. 

9. Liguria, Italy

If you’ve already battled the crowds of Cinque Terre and are looking for a more tranquil side to the seaside region of Liguria, Italy, we’ve got your itinerary. Big & Small based ourselves in the larger town of La Spezia, and traveled by bus and train to six other nearby coastal villages that rival the five towns of Cinque Terre for their spectacular views, colorful houses, and fresh seafood. Join us as we walk through Porto Venere, Lerici, San Terenzo, Levanto, Bonassola, and Framura. This is our “alternative” Cinque Terre—or more like our “Sei Terre” (Six Lands)!

10. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Big & Small spent a month in Malaysia’s gleaming, bustling capital of Kuala Lumpur. Our intention here was not only to take in the city’s spicy food and melting-pot culture, but to be true “digital nomads,” i.e. save money and focus on our online work. But we found plenty of time to sit by the pool and explore the city as well. We visited the Petronas Towers and the national mosque, checked out traditional Malay dance, dodged monkeys at the Batu Caves, and caught plenty of whiffs of the world’s stinkiest fruit.

11. Montenegro

Montenegro boasts fewer than 700,000 residents, but welcomes more than 1 million tourists every year. This is because this small Balkan country has quite a lot to offer, from its rugged mountains to its narrow strip of beaches along the Adriatic coastline. Big & Small traveled through the country via bus and train. We walked the boardwalk of Bar, meandered our way through the old towns of Kotor and Budva, enjoyed fresh seafood and pomegranate juice, and visited the largest lake in the Balkans. But we also had a few disappointments along the way…

12. San Francisco, California, USA

This was our home base for several years, so we enjoyed being reintroduced to San Francisco’s many charms (even with its growing ills, too). The City by the Bay is now infamous for its outrageous prices, but it’s still a place full of things to see and do that require nothing but your curiosity.

Updates: Videos, Vietnam, and Photos!

We are going through a lot of photos and videos now. So, take a look at some of our Vietnam pictures from Hoi An in Central Vietnam. Also, we have included a few videos from Asia, Europe and the USA. Enjoy!

Watch some Big and Small Videos below and subscribe:

The Beauty of San Francisco

Big and Small just want to share some photos of various attractions and fun in San Francisco. Click on each individual photo for more info. Please comment and enjoy our photos!

 

Black Sand Beach in Northern California & More

We visited an overlooked Black Sands Beach in Northern California. Black Sands Beach is in the south end of a long walkable coastline that is over 20 miles long in Shelter Cove along the Lost Coast Trail. Check out our Youtube Page and watch our Videos in Northern California.

 

Why is the sand so dark here? You’ll find black sand beaches in three types of regions: in areas with high wave energy, those next to volcanoes, and places where the source rock is primarily dark-colored and lacking in silica. In this part of California, the black get the color from dark colored sandstone and shale produced by tectonic activity of one continental and two oceanic plates meeting just offshore.

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We unearthed and found a video from our long European trek of Lisbon, Portugal. Watch us discuss the trams, graffiti, and culture of Lisbon —- the rawest capital of Western Europe.

We have updated our post San Francisco’s 8 Best Running Trails  Check it out!

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Updated Best Coffee Spots in San Francisco Bay Area

Summer is almost upon us, so what a better way to get energized and excited than discussing —- Coffee in the San Francisco Bay area. We have updated our San Francisco post on the best coffee roasters. Here is the new updated link Coffee: The New San Francisco Treat

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Mount Bachelor in Oregon and Rural Northern California

Big and Small Travel are on Youtube! We post travel videos showcasing recent trips and excursions. Our most recent videos from 2016 include Mount Bachelor near Bend, Oregon where Big and Small go snowshoeing for the first time! Check it out below:

We enjoy the urban slides of San Francisco, California at Seward Street. Watch Handstand Steph fly and fall on these fast slides below:

Lastly, J-Crew got a chance to explore Northern California in an area near called Brownsville-Challenge, California. Check it out below:

Exploring North Beach and San Francisco’s Top Trails

Happy 2016 from Big and Small Travel!

J-Crew and Handstand Steph are back from a big European vacation with an update from their home base of San Francisco. First, we take you on a tour through the coastal city’s many scenic and hilly trails that offer both incredible views and butt-kicking workouts. Check out our picks for San Francisco’s Top 8 Running Trails here!

Then, we head over to North Beach with a brand new video showcasing one of our favorite corners of this historic San Francisco hood, where we like to go for good coffee and macarons:

Handstand Steph talks about a legendary place for sandwiches in North Beach:

Stay tuned for more from Big and Small Travel and be sure to follow us on Twitter and Instagram for more updates.

 

Classic Road Trip: Los Angeles to San Francisco

California is such a romanticized destination, from its dramatic coastline to its quirky characters — and it’s all best experienced on the road. Subscribe to our Big and Small Travel Youtube  and watch our travels in California. 

Pacific Coast Highway
Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) in Santa Monica. The beginning of our journey.

One of the best and most popular road trips in the Golden State involves driving along the scenic Pacific Coast Highway between sunny Los Angeles and foggy San Francisco. Here’s our photo guide to must-see sites and stops along the way, starting in L.A. and going north.

Continue reading “Classic Road Trip: Los Angeles to San Francisco”

San Francisco in 10 Years, 10 Spots & 20 Songs

A look at the bridge from Marshall's Beach
Climbing rocks to catch a glimpse of the great Golden Gate from Marshall’s Beach

This October marked my 10th anniversary in San Francisco. Yes, I’ve seen this city change dramatically, and, yes, it has become grossly expensive. The streets are a messy dichotomy of new construction and rotting feces. Beloved spots are hastily transforming into faceless condos, while too many of its people miss out on its quirks and quaintness because they’re staring down at a screen. But enough has been bitched about regarding growing economic disparity, greedy landlords, corporate takeovers, Zuckerberg and Google buses, “bro”-grammers and millenials swooping into a city whose history they don’t give one damn about it. I’m not here to add to that circular conversation, or romanticize San Francisco’s more culturally stimulating “better times,” or to yell at these kids to get off my lawn (I’m just an expat from the Midwest, after all). Continue reading “San Francisco in 10 Years, 10 Spots & 20 Songs”

Trip Daze: Calistoga’s Mud, Wine, and Good Times

A diorama of Calistoga's heyday, from the Sharpsteen Museum of Calistoga History
A diorama of Calistoga’s heyday, from the Sharpsteen Museum of Calistoga History

Ok, I admit that my knowledge of the town of Calistoga pretty much stopped at its sparkling mineral water line — a favorite purchase for a refreshing gas station treat. And though I’ve driven through the Napa Valley town on numerous occasions — always noting “Dr. Wilkinson’s Mud Baths” and other signs touting spa bliss — other wine locales in the area had managed to always lure me away. So when researching a quick weekend trip from San Francisco, Julian and I had decided to bypass the more populated Sonoma and Napa and try out Calistoga, home to hot springs, vineyards, and old tourist destinations (or traps depending on how much of a geological nerd you may be) like the Petrified Forest and the Old Faithful Geyser of California (okay, that’s definitely a trap with its sad petting zoo as its best attempt to entice the kiddies).

ACCOMMODATION:

The Sunburst Calistoga
We had come across a new hotel, the Sunburst Calistoga. Its sleek yet retro décor — and, better yet, its promise of mineral water pools — made it a favorable accommodation choice. (Not to mention the Living Social deal I found just a few days after our initial Internet discovery of the place.) Turns out the Sunburst advertised discounted prices across every major deal site — including Groupon and Travelzoo — so we arrived at the motel-like structure on the edge of town to a fully packed house. This meant service was slow and the pools crowded (so much for a relaxing dip in the mineral pools — which smelled more of chlorine than anything else). The Sunburst could benefit from a tighter pool policy (don’t allow outsiders, for example), another employee at the front desk during peak times, and a more robust and fresh breakfast spread). But overall the rooms were comfortable, and the brightly colored, ’50s-hinting décor cute and functional. The location was ideal, and the price was right — especially for Napa Valley — at just $130 a night. A stay during the week may be your best bet here.

Lounging in the lobby of the Sunburst Calistoga
Lounging in the lobby of the Sunburst Calistoga

MUST-DO’s:

Tamber Bey Vineyards
Down the road just a few blocks from the Sunburst is Calistoga’s main drag, dotted with olive oil shops, tasting rooms, restaurants, and cafes. We recommend stopping by the Visitors Center at 1133 Washington Street to get discounts on attractions like wineries and hot springs, and great advice from the helpful staff. Our best find here was a 2 for 1 tasting coupon at the spacious and serene Tamber Bey Vineyards — one of the highlights of our trip. Their fairly new location (relocated from St. Helena late in 2013) is set amongst an expansive 22-acre equestrian paradise. Grabbing a sunny seat outside means you’ll find yourself flanked by horse stables, but even if you’re not the equine type (me, not so much), this never distracts from the tasting experience, which they make truly comfortable here. Splurge and get the cookie and wine pairings (it’s worth the extra $10). The cookies are made by a grad from the nearby Culinary Institute of America, and expertly paired with the wine selections.

Tamber Bey Vineyards
Tamber Bey Vineyards

Golden Haven Hot Springs
Now, of course, no trip to Calistoga is without a little pampering. We chose Golden Haven Hot Springs because of their great deal on a couple’s mud bath and free use of their mineral pools (at $64/person). Golden Haven follows the “traditional” mud bath process, and the place feels a bit haunted by miners and hippies past, but that only adds to the mystical experience. As newbie mud bathers we were a bit hesitant climbing into the tubs, especially when told the bottoms’ll burn ya! But once comfortably settled in the mix of mud, clay, and Calistoga hot spring water, it’s like floating on a heated quilt full of tiny, densely packed beads massaging your every crevice. Your body won’t sink, but your mind pleasantly will. After about 15 minutes, you shower off, slip into your private mineral hot tub, and then get escorted to a softly lit room where you’re wrapped in a warm blanket and encouraged to take your mind to far-off lands.

Golden Haven Hot Springs
Golden Haven Hot Springs

Sharpsteen Museum of Calistoga History
Once that mud-high fades, one last stop in town should be at the Sharpsteen Museum of Calistoga History. It’s a charming little spot dedicated to one of the more fascinating personalities of Gold Rush times: pioneer, promoter, entrepreneur, and California’s first millionaire, Sam Brannan. Just seeing the timeline of this guy’s life is worth the $3 donation. I’m shocked there hasn’t already been a Hollywood movie depicting his life of Mormonism, multiple marriages, deadly shoot-outs, lucrative investments, and eventually bankruptcy. The museum is named after Ben Sharpsteen, an animator for Walt Disney, and so you’ll also find a good stock of Disney memorabilia.

Listening up in the Sharpsteen Museum of Calistoga History
Listening up in the Sharpsteen Museum of Calistoga History

Lastly…
While Calistoga may not have the same luster it did when Brannan opened his original Calistoga Hot Springs Resort some 150 years ago, it still has a rustic kind of charm without the hoity-toity Napa pretensions. Strangest thing, though: I didn’t come across one bottle of Calistoga water…

*BONUS FEATURE*
FOOD HIGHLIGHTS in ST. HELENA

The Model Bakery
Less than 10 miles southeast of Calistoga is the decidedly chicer town of St. Helena. Here, the dining options are aplenty and a little more varied than in Calistoga. There’s a good cluster of restaurants, cafes, olive oil shops, and boutiques along and around Main Street, so it’s best to park and take a stroll around the ‘hood. Food must-stops include the Model Bakery, whose claim to fame is their fluffy, hearty English muffins — and I can vouch that you’ll think twice about ever getting a package of Thomas’ after biting into one of Model’s. And though the wealth of pastries, breads, cakes, and pies, will have you more than salivating, they also offer sandwiches and salads packed with fresh, seasonal veggies to offset any sugary indulgent.

Prosecco at Himalayan Sherpa Kitchen
Prosecco at Himalayan Sherpa Kitchen

Himalayan Sherpa Kitchen
For dinner, I highly recommend the Himalayan Sherpa Kitchen. The owners here are from Nepal and offer a wide assortment of traditional Nepali and Indian dishes. The service was impeccable — gracious and efficient — but the food is what really left a lasting impression. It’s a delicate balance bringing together the rich spices of this type of cuisine; when done best, the flavors lie waiting under your tongue, slowly colliding, until your taste buds pop with delight — and we happily experienced that here. The naan bread (you can also get with basil or cilantro) was optimally soft on the inside, crispy on the out. The Saag Paneer was rich and creamy, and the Tandoori Tikka chicken breast was tender and spiced just right with the peppers and onions — both go well with a glass of prosecco. All of that was plenty for two people. Full and satisfied, a belly-easing mint tea was our perfect nightcap.