Make It a Mai Tai


For Marcel Proust a madeleine famously opened the floodgates of memory. A ripe pineapple does it for me: One nibble and I am returned to a beach that has been cleansed by a brief morning storm, a trade wind rustling through coconut palm fronds and the sweet scent of plumeria hitting like a fragrant uppercut. One bite and I’m back in Hawaii.

Thanks to those all-inclusive family deals offered by the tour group Pleasant Hawaiian Holidays (calling the Aloha State “pleasant” has always seemed an understatement), I spent ten summers and winters of my youth on the islands. We’d broil in the afternoon sun (my dermatologist is helping me deal with the consequences) and swim in breaks so calm, you could hardly believe they were part of the Pacific Ocean. In the evenings we’d listen to large men strum tiny ukuleles that rested across their chests as we combed the sand with metal detectors in search of treasure. Our parents would “monitor” us from their perch at the Three Torches Bar on Waikiki Beach, waving at us with whichever hand wasn’t cradling a mai tai. Usually our island of choice was Oahu, but we also made repeat visits to Maui, Kauai, and the Big Island. Later, with my husband, I added Molokai to the list on one of our own trips. It’s no surprise, perhaps, that visitors to my home and those of my two brothers and their families notice a common theme: Indoors are paintings of pre-high-rise Honolulu and decorative lamps featuring motorized hula girls that swivel in grass skirts; outdoors, wooden gods carved by chain saws and elaborate bamboo tiki bars (yes, each of us has one). But among the Melton family members, my mom rules for the most indelible ode to the 50th state. For her 65th birthday many moons ago I paid a tattoo artist to ink a 1940s-style Sailor Jerry hula girl on the inside of her right ankle. It’s an instant icebreaker for visiting nurses at her rest home.

If all this seems a little much, please understand that I am genetically predisposed to Hawaii-itis. On my father’s side of the family we are directly related (somewhere in the great, great, great, etcetera, uncle territory) to Captain James Cook, the English explorer who charted “the Sandwich Islands,” as he named them, in 1778. In this issue we celebrate Hawaii, which is a favorite destination of Angelenos whether or not they’re related to Captain Cook. Writer Matt Jaffe even visits the place on Kealakekua Bay where Uncle James met his demise. Sure, the islands have changed a lot since my first visit 34 years ago; I remember when there was one stoplight on all of Kauai. But as Matt writes, it’s remarkable how much of Hawaii looks and feels as it did when Captain Cook first floated in on the HMS Resolution. Like any intrepid explorer, you’ve just got to go off-map to find it.