A couple of years back, we picked up a new "first" touring bike for my wife. It was a bit of a challenge at 5'3" finding a small frame bike that fit her well, did'nt have a major front wheel/toe overlap problem etc. She ended up with a Jamis Aurora that she is really happy with and seemed to be a very good value.
The bike is set up with triple cranks with nice low gearing, has braze-ons for rear rack and front fork low-rider racks, two bottle cage setups, accomodates fenders (provided) and wide tires (came with Vittoria Touring tires). She's been just delighted with it, all the components work real well for her and the stock saddle even was a perfect "ride-it-many-hours" fit right off the bat.
We can't give a report on it for loading touring yet, matter of fact while typing this she jabbed me and said "tell them to try a tandem! (which we have been spending most of our time on) , however it seems I had recently seen a thread here somewhere in which someone had mentioned finishing their coast-to-coast trip on their Aurora with no problem.
The bike was somewhere around $1100 as we recall. Not the lightest rig out there but the fit, wide gearing, and smooth component operation with a frame made for touring really sold her.
Good luck with your search, and may the two of you have many happy touring miles and adventures in your future....
Tom, (with regards from tandem mate Diane as well)