“Top three favorite things you saw or did: go.” My brother-in-law loves to ask this question after a person returns from a trip, and while it’s not contrary to how I shuffle through my post-vacation memories — a choice few mental Polaroids always seem to have extra shine, don’t they? — it definitely puts me on the spot. Discussing one’s travel highlights isn’t much different than firing up the long-outdated slide projector and clicking through images: no one wants to endure it for very long.

I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what blogs are for, though, so although I kept my answers brief when I talked with him, I won’t extend the same courtesy here. I’m sorry! Writing it down is the best way to anchor it in time a little more dependably, so here we go: my top 3 things about taking a 7-day cruise to Alaska.

3) Last but certainly not least, I had hours upon hours to relax and unwind from the inside out. I could let my mind drift on the waves and just absorb my surroundings, aware of the sun on my skin (my gosh, were we ever blessed with the weather) and the murmur of people and the occasional heart-lifting sight of a whale spotted through binoculars. I brought an excellent book (Daisy Jones and the Six, which I finished afterwards and really, really enjoyed) but rarely made any progress in it because I was so happy to sit and be present.

There are a million different ways to cruise and lots of people make good use of the activities on board, of which there are many. I prefer to peoplewatch and ocean-watch, and I cannot get enough of either. Most days I hit the gym long enough to feel slightly less guilty about all the amazing food, and I also liked soaking in the heated mineral pool, but my favorite thing was to find a comfy seat and watch the world go by.

2) I’m going to cheat with this one and lump a few things together. The most stunning sight I saw was the Hubbard Glacier, a towering wall of otherworldly blue ice that creaks and groans and occasionally calves away in great thunderous splashes. The most delightful experience I had was visiting a musher’s camp in Juneau, where my aunt and I met many charming sled dogs and even got to cuddle a five-week-old puppy. The most diverse and beautiful sightseeing I did was in Sitka, where we took a boat around the island-studded Sound and saw bald eagles, whales, and a ridiculous amount of sea otters.

1) The most special aspect of this trip was spending time with my mom and aunt. We shared a suite, which worked perfectly for the three of us and also meant we had access to some great perks like free laundry and a nearby lounge and concierge. (Also, a bathtub! I took a bath every night and marveled at the craziness of watching the bathwater slosh around with the movement of the ship.) We ate our meals together and spent time on the balcony and lingered over coffee and navigated the occasional crowd bum-rush to the elevators. We talked about life and shared memories and current events and commiserated about our ill-mannered pets and secretly named our dining room waiter “Mr. Giggles” for his unfortunate habit of snickering apologetically as he whisked plates on and off the table.

The two of them live in Port Angeles along with my mom’s longtime partner, in a house with a gorgeous view of the water (and on clear days, Victoria glimmering in the distance). They’re far enough away that I worry about the years ahead, how long they can rely on each other, whether or not they will be willing to tell me when they need help. I regret the years — so many of them — of distance between my mom and I, the ways in which the love we always had for each other could not make itself understood. I wish I could wave a magic wand and give them better health, more hope for our country’s future, a stellar publishing deal for my aunt’s increasingly impressive fiction lineup. Maybe a perfectly-behaved dog or two.

But there was a real magic in having this week together, experiencing some of Alaska’s wild and raw beauty and forging memories that we’ll each treasure in our own way. What a great gift it was, how we lucky we are.

(Some cruise info, if you’re interested: we sailed with Holland, on the Oosterdam, with departure from Seattle and stops in Juneau, Sitka, Ketchikan, and Victoria. A+++, would do again in a heartbeat.)