Does anyone have recommendations for a good tour company or other plan for visiting destinations in Europe? My husband and I are fortunate enough to be able to plan a fairly major trip to celebrate our 10th anniversary, and we would like to do a tour either of Scandinavia or the British Isles (or parts of either region). My ancestors are largely from Scandinavia and Ireland, and my husband’s are largely from England, Scotland, and Germany.

Now, there are major issues with the desire by rich white Americans for “authentic,” “off-the-beaten path” travel as raised in this Racialicious post (which is very thought-provoking and well worth reading–I personally am so insular as to never really have had the desire to travel to non-European destinations in the first place, which I’m sure says very bad things about me, but in any case many of the points raised by the author and in the comments had never occurred to me before and were quite eye-opening). Nevertheless, I’m just going to lay out there what I am looking for, and hope that a) the fact that I’m planning travel to wealthy European destinations in the first place will in and of itself mitigate some of the potential issues of entitlement, power/economic imbalance, and racism raised by the piece, and b) commenters will set me straight if I’m being an asshole.

So, I think what I am looking for is a package tour so that I don’t have to plan everything myself. I pretty much planned out my own activities when I got to go with my husband to a conference in Paris a few years ago, but that was easier because it was a shorter trip; it was less expensive because the company paid for his airfare and our hotel and it was therefore less risky if I accidentally planned stuff that ended up sucking, though luckily that ultimately did not happen; and I know a little about France and speak a little French, even though we’re talking high-school French level here, but at least it was a starting point. In any of the destinations I mentioned, I would be much more clueless and based on the cash outlay, language barrier (in the Scandinavian case) and general ignorance of the culture, and potential for stress, I think the trip would be more effective if I just let someone knowledgeable plan it for me.

As a stupid example, my dad is from the Upper Peninsula, so I’ve been there many times throughout my life. Therefore, I know that the pasties you can get by the Bridge kind of suck (though there are probably exceptions, I just don’t know about them, which sort of underlines my point), but this particular shop in Ishpeming has ones that I love. It’s not a “secret” or anything–I’m sure a lot of the customers are tourists just like me–and it’s actually a fairly prosperous chain as far as I know, with a couple of locations and the ability to ship frozen pasties and that kind of stuff. It’s just that if you had never visited the area or only had Google to go on, you might not know it was there (I mean, you might, but you might not), whereas if you asked someone in my family, you would. I don’t particularly need everything we do to be some kind of back-street exclusive experience containing no other Americans, I just want it to actually be good and for the trip to be fun and substantive and educational on the whole. If that makes any sense.

So, that being said, I would just as soon not end up on a cheesy tour where everyone is 70 years old (no offense to older folks; I’d just feel more comfortable if the group skewed more toward my own age–the same goes for the fact that I’d prefer not to end up with mostly high-school or college students either) and we spend all our time on a bus and/or in highly “touristy” places with crappy food and overpriced souvenirs. Let’s call this what it is; I don’t think I’m “better” than anyone else with some kind of high-minded desire for “authenticity” or to “blend in,” (or I don’t know, I probably do think that on some level, but anyway), but honestly I don’t want to waste the cost of what may be the biggest, most expensive trip of my life on subpar food and entertainment that’s considered “good enough” for clueless Americans who would secretly rather be at McDonald’s (as the stereotype might go), but not for people who live there or actually know anything about the culture.

Problem being, I don’t actually know anything about the culture, so I need to sort of contract that part of it out, and I do recognize that I sort of deserve what I get by doing so rather than researching the destinations thoroughly and/or knowing someone there who can show us around. Nevertheless, I’m hoping someone knows of high-quality tour companies that they can recommend. I have one recommendation for a Rick Steves tour; any corroboration for that, or other suggestions? We don’t really have any physical limitations so a more strenuous tour shouldn’t be a problem if that opens up additional options.

Here is the part where I share two things that probably say a great deal about my own white privilege and ugly-American-ness (or perhaps ugly whiteness), but also serve to explain why I’m leery of tours and “planned vacations” in general.

Number one, when I was in high school in North Carolina, a friend asked me along on her church trip to a sort of small-time local amusement park (warning: annoying music plays automatically). While there, we saw a show put on by local Native Americans and consisting of (what I assume were) facsimiles of “native costume” made of bandannas, accompanied by a lot of self-deprecating jokes about Native American culture and even about, essentially, the fact of being conquered and displaced by Europeans, all in a very lighthearted, “what are you gonna do” kind of tone, while all the white folks in the audience laughed. As a high-schooler, this made me feel almost sick with guilt and discomfort.

Of course, now I am aware that it’s not as simple as my outrage at the time would indicate. For example, you might well say that I deserved to be uncomfortable given the unjust situation that my ancestors perpetrated that gave rise to the show in the first place. And at the same time, obviously my guilt and a quarter won’t even buy you a phone call, so I can sit there all day long and feel terrible about myself and have my white sensibilities outraged and it still doesn’t do any real person a bit of good, whereas the money I paid to see the show does do real people some good. So I don’t know. I do think that I know that in an ideal world, I would hope not to be paying for entertainment that caters specifically to my sense of superiority as an American and bolsters my own self-satisfaction (even though I’m going to majority white countries in this particular case, U.S.-centricism is still potentially an issue), perhaps by relying on caricatures of nationality or ethnicity to make me feel more comfortable, and I would prefer my money not go to a company that trades on that. And maybe I wouldn’t even recognize such a phenomenon for what it was unless you guys tip me off, so that’s why I’m explaining all this.

Basically, even though I know I am absolutely as racist as or perhaps much more racist than the next person, and have a vast amount to work on in that respect, I like to think that I’m “better” than a tour that would cater to Americans’ sense of superiority and entitlement. Whether that is actually true is debatable, of course.

Number two, my in-laws went to Colombia on a cruise, and this cruise was the most hokey, controlled, tourist-trap thing you can imagine, from what I could glean. Now, you might say that at least they weren’t treading too far into the actual culture to gawk at and trample on private life, and at least they were contributing to someone’s livelihood by paying for photos with “locals,” visiting pre-approved landmarks, and shopping for high-priced emeralds at preselected shops that count on you not to know that you’re being overcharged. (Both general points raised in the Racialicious comments). But isn’t there somewhere a happy medium where you support local economies and maybe develop rapport and empathy with people outside of your own country, without at the same time violating people’s privacy, exoticizing them, or having your sense of yourself as the “superior other” reinforced at every turn, which doesn’t seem like it can be a positive thing? In other words, is there a way to be a “responsible tourist” that falls somewhere between tourist traps (that IMO say more about you and your comfort zone than about the culture of the country you’re visiting), and imposing yourself into areas where you do not belong and are really not wanted?

Anyway. Enough about my tiresome internal struggle. The other possibility would be to go to the maritime provinces of Canada, so if anyone has any suggestions about tours or just what to see if we go that route, that would be great also.

Or, does anyone have other destinations altogether to suggest? I’m not big on going to the beach just to go, for example, but if it’s a beach (or other) destination that is particularly beautiful or cool or that you really loved, let me know.

Thanks for any advice you can provide!!