The daughter of a traveling salesman, Sheryl Kayne has a wanderlust that came naturally. "My lifelong dream was to drive from the East Coast to Alaska," she said. "But I wanted to know all about Alaska, to experience it like someone living there, and not just leave after a brief visit." A summer spent as a living history researcher and interpreter at the McKinley Village Lodge in Denali National Park showed her that the best way to understand and appreciate her destination was to work, volunteer or try activities that made her part of the action. Her passion for these unique vacation experiences led Kayne to write a guidebook titled "Immersion Travel USA: The Best and Most Meaningful Volunteering, Living, and Learning Excursions." We caught up with her enjoying the immersion travel life in Boynton Beach, Fla.

Q What is immersion travel?

A Immersion travel is taking an active part in where you visit in order to learn about the culture, traditions and characteristics of each particular place.

Q What sets an immersion traveler apart from a tourist?

A Immersion travelers ask questions about which activities need helpers and what the locals do and where they do it. Immersion travelers stop at the public library to see if there's a book club or program they can go to. They contact religious, professional, political, sports or hobby groups they are affiliated with at home to find people of similar interests when they travel.

I've attended weddings, pot luck dinners, christenings, star-gazing events and a barn-raising from public announcements on community bulletin boards -- it's a great way to meet people and get involved.

Q Many of the experiences in your book sound exotic. Is immersion travel expensive?

A No. Many of the trips are free or trade room and board for labor. You can spend a little or a lot, depending upon what you want to do: enjoy a free weekend of working hard to repair trails in a magnificent setting with Sky Island Alliance in Arizona or save up to have the thrill of a lifetime experiencing a space adventure at the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center.

Q What about immersion travel options for families?

A I love the Covered Wagon Tour along the Oregon Trail in Bayard, Neb. Can you imagine the thrill of experiencing what the Oregon Trail was actually like for the pioneers? One family in my book volunteered on an Indian reservation for a week. The children had traveled the world but agreed that volunteering together as a family was the best vacation they'd ever had.

Q What if you don't have a lot of vacation time? Can you have an immersion travel experience in a weekend?

A "Staycations" can be just as much fun as a planned vacation. Hike a new trail or visit a park you haven't been to before or try a new activity such as geocaching, which uses a global positioning system receiver to facilitate a high-tech treasure hunt.

Or consider carrying a garbage bag along on your walks and leave the area cleaner than you found it. St. Paul-based Global Volunteers offers immersion travel experiences in Worthington and Austin, Minn.

Q What if I need my vacation to relax from the stresses of work and life? Can you do that on an immersion vacation?

A Absolutely. Many travelers feel that immersion travel is both engaging and invigorating. In Homosassa Springs, Fla., I needed a rest and found an activity that has impacted the rest of my life. Manatees winter there and I went for a swim with a group of eight other people ages 7 to 77. We experienced swimming with the manatees, viewing their scars from boats, and learning how to protect the habitats for these beautiful, kind animals.

Q Are there ways to make resort vacations more of an immersion experience?

A It's important to do your homework before you go. Resorts are great, but also take the time to investigate what the locals do for fun, education, entertainment and to help others. When staying at a resort hotel on Maui, I asked a bellman what his plans were over the weekend with his kids. He told me about the Fish Bowl, a magnificent enclosed cove for snorkeling that requires a 45-minute walk across a lava field.