Benjamin’s pants were ragged from sand and salt water, his arms and face burned the color of wood stain. “Welcome to my workshop,” he said, smiling wide and sweeping an arm over the sandy, palm-framed space where the skeleton of a half-built boat lay.

Thirty years ago, I met Benjamin on a cruise excursion to the Caribbean island of Bequia. My ship had anchored that morning off the coast of the seven-square-mile island, and two dozen passengers were delivered to the main town of Port Elizabeth. Most joined a walking tour, but I opted to amble on my own, passing closet-size shops selling pottery, scrimshaw, and yacht provisions, then wandering among vegetable patches and brightly painted ramshackle houses. An impromptu detour took me down a shell-lined path to Benjamin’s beachfront boatbuilding workplace.

After answering a few questions about his life, the sinewy 60-year-old said, “I keep some chickens, and I grow cucumbers, tomatoes, and dasheen [taro].”

His deep-grained hands caressed the boat’s seams, the careful caulking, the lines designed for maximum speed. “But this is what my father taught me. This is my life.” And he launched into a half-hour lesson in the fine—and nearly forgotten—art of traditional Bequian boatbuilding.

That encounter with Benjamin embodies a lesson I first learned on a cruise in 1976, an Aegean odyssey to Santorini, Rhodes, and Crete, where the zest of the Greek crew lent a lively layer to the archaeological treasures of Knossos and Iráklion. I’ve relearned the lesson since on boats large and small, from a five-masted luxury liner in the Mediterranean to a bare-bones expedition ship in Mexico’s Sea of Cortés. While the cabins, cuisine, and companions have varied from ship to ship, one truth has stayed the same: Cruises can offer unexpected encounters that bestow a deeper understanding and appreciation of a place.

Sometimes these encounters are of the wildlife kind. A voyage to the Galápagos was the highlight of my children’s traveling life. As we traveled from island to island, we saw blue-footed boobies, Sally Lightfoot crabs, and marine iguanas fearlessly coexisting; on one path an unperturbed booby laid a light blue egg right before our eyes—and feet. One afternoon, my daughter and I slipped into the clear waters to snorkel. A trio of sea lions torpedoed our way, flipping around as if inviting us to an interspecies playdate. Jenny joined them, and before long they were spinning, diving, and somersaulting whisker-to-face-mask. Ten years later, Jenny is a graduate student in marine science.

My most moving encounter occurred on an educational voyage through the Adriatic from Montenegro to Bosnia-Herzegovina. I had been grappling throughout this trip with the tangled conflicts of Balkan history, the cultural divisions that seemed impossible to bridge. Then we visited the historic town of Mostar in Bosnia-Herzegovina. As we walked the Old Town’s cobbled streets, our guide—a Muslim woman in her 20s named Lana—explained that the once charming place had been torn apart by ethnic conflict in the 1990s. “You can still see the evidence everywhere,” she said, pointing to the bomb-blasted shells of buildings and facades pockmarked with bullet holes.

Then we stopped before the 16th-century Stari Most bridge, which Lana said had been determinedly rebuilt after the war to reconnect the Croat and Muslim communities. She took a deep breath and, in a quavering voice, said that if it was all right with us, she wanted to tell us her tale. Before the war, no one knew or cared about the religious beliefs of friends and neighbors, Lana said; everyone got along. Then came the war. One day, soldiers took away her bicycle. A few days later, they took away her father. Thanks to good connections and luck, her father was released, and the entire family escaped to Norway. When the hostilities ceased, they returned immediately to Mostar, only to find their home occupied by a Croat judge. Eventually, the judge moved out and they began rebuilding their lives.

Lana took another deep breath, and a smile transformed her face. “Now among my friends, we don’t ask what our religions are. We don’t care. We want to live in peace with each other.” She spread her arms wide. “We want to rebuild our beautiful home.”

We returned to the sea with a deeper understanding of this scarred and hopeful place, and of the human bonds we all share, whatever voyage we take.

Illustration by Paul Rogers. This story appeared in the May/June 2011 issue.