The photos arrived the other day by e-mail. We’re all beaming, with the broad smiles that happy travelers usually have. Paired with my family are two former strangers we had met on the boat: an 86-year-old woman and her son, from Great Britain.

My sister and I were traveling with our parents — both in their 80s — on a cruise down the Rhine River in Germany, a mode of transportation that suited their preference for limited walking.

As it turned out, the trip met the needs of my sister and me, as well.

If the goal of a vacation is to broaden our world and connect with new people — and it is, for us — this trip worked, which made me reconsider the raised eyebrows that some experienced travelers cast upon any excursion that says “organized itinerary.”

This was my first time with any type of tour. Usually I’m huddled over a computer or paging through guidebooks as I plan the minutiae of a vacation. On this occasion, we let someone else — Avalon Waterways — do the heavy lifting. And, to the surprise of my sister and me, both serious travelers, it was a revelation.

Our small boat glided down the Rhine with only 100-plus guests aboard, at least half of them from countries beyond the United States, though all English-speaking.

The staff came from around the world, too. Ivan from Bulgaria and Liu from Bali waited on us daily and told us stories about their lives, as did the local tour guides who led us through one German city after another.

And beyond the half-timbered buildings, cobblestone streets and ancient castles, that’s what we were really looking for: life lived elsewhere. We found it, to our surprise, on a trip planned by others.


Lee Svitak Dean, the Star Tribune’s food editor, is guest columnist today. Follow her on Twitter: @StribTaste.