First of two parts

Zanzibar! Just eight letters, but what a wealth of romance they sum up!

Like Timbuktu or Casablanca, the name itself is enough to draw travelers halfway around the world. And like Timbuktu and Casablanca, the reality of Zanzibar is sometimes somewhat different from the fevered imaginings of the traveler.

“The stench from the exposed sea beach, which is the general depository of the filth of the town, is quite horrible,” noted intrepid British explorer David Livingstone. “It might be called ‘Stinkibar’ rather than Zanzibar.”

But that was in 1866.

And while Livingstone’s unflattering verdict held good for Zanzibar Town’s Stone Town district well into the 20th century, thanks to a drainage system installed by the Aga Khan’s charitable foundation, the traditional fragrance of sun, sea salt and spices is once again returning.

Though Stone Town still has its pockets of poisonous aromatherapy, and the political situation remains somewhat unstable, this cluster of Indian Ocean islands lying 45 km off the Tanzanian coast is definitely something special.

As a visitor quoted in the excellent Bradt’s travel guidebook put it: “The history . . . Sultans, princesses, palaces, explorers, pirates, ivory traders . . . Wow!”

He could have added: “The shortest war in history; slave traders and slave-trade busters; smugglers; spice gardens; wrecks; lost palaces; translucent coral seas; ruined leper colonies; and the birthplace of rock group Queen’s singer Freddie Mercury.” (Yes, really, the Persian father of Freddie, aka Farouk Bulsara, moved here from India to work as an accountant for the British government. No wonder the lad turned out to be so colorful).

The visitor’s “wow” was about right, though. Zanzibar has a very fat slice of romance, history, tragedy, farce, turmoil and unhappy ghosts.

Most visitors begin their Zanzibar experience by checking into a guesthouse in or near Stone Town, the ancient heart of Zanzibar. Then they take their guidebook or map and go out to explore. And then they get lost.

Stone Town hasn’t changed much since the 19th century, when another British explorer, Richard Burton, described the streets as “threads of a tangled skein.” Wonky buildings lean crookedly out over narrow meandering alleys, sometimes barely a meter wide.

Every twist and turn leads to something unexpected: a cramped courtyard filled with radio parts and two men wrapped in white robes fiddling with widgets and screwdrivers in silence; an open ground-floor window offering a glimpse of solemn children learning to recite the Koran; a tiny bazaar; an abrupt flight of stone steps leading to an old wooden balcony covered in flowers; an irritating man who won’t go away until you’ve booked a life-threatening trip on his brother’s dhow to his brother’s beach hotel. It’s all perplexing. Disorienting. Intriguing.

The houses, many of which are three or four stories tall, could not be described as being in the best of health. Many were built out of soft coral rock and look dangerously close to the point of collapse. But this, in a way, is Stone Town’s charm. It has been likened to an African Venice: ancient, ailing, but still standing. The analogy is particularly apt when heavy rains turn the streets into impromptu canals.

Noteworthy are some of Stone Town’s doors. Traditionally the door was the first part of a house to be erected, and many are intricately carved with quotations from the Koran and even pre-Islamic symbols thought to be derived from Ancient Egypt.

The inclusion of iron bolts and studs is an Indian influence, originally designed on the subcontinent to deter war elephants from pushing in doors with their foreheads. No elephants remain on Zanzibar today, though when Marco Polo swung by in the 13th century, he described “elephants in abundance.”

Some visitors are saddened by the aura of decay but should take heart in the knowledge that the United Nations Habitat program is currently, if sluggishly, attempting to restore Stone Town’s buildings to their former glory.

The harbor nearby jostles with water craft, most noticeably the dhows: single-sheeted sailing boats that ply the East African coast, unchanged in design for centuries. And then there are the sunsets: magnificent African extravaganzas that fire the sky and tinge the quays, the sails, the rippling water, the sailors struggling with ropes and baskets of fish with a magnificent blend of light and shadow.

After they’ve found their way out of Stone Town, the tourists disperse.

The beaches of Zanzibar are the sort that good sun-worshippers go to after they’ve died of skin cancer. Heavenly. Huge, white-sanded, lapped by clean, green water, fringed with palms and tangled tropical vegetation. They are also uncrowded, sometimes totally deserted.

Simply locating a guesthouse and flopping over for the rest of the holiday is a temptation to which some succumb. But it’s rather a waste. The main island of Zanzibar, referred to by almost everybody as Zanzibar though its current official name is the unlovely Unjuga, has a lot more up its sleeve.

Monsoon winds have made commerce between Zanzibar and Arabia, Persia and India possible for thousands of years, and the slave trade has left its stamp in the form of once-grandiose palaces built by profiteering sultans. Many have been “forgotten” and are crumbling in picturesque ruin. There are also Persian baths out in the countryside; rather moldy and home to bats.

Although the British outlawed the traffic in human flesh, it persisted, and the so-called Slave Cave carved into coral rock north of Zanzibar Town was used as a storage chamber. One tourist described it as having “bad vibes.” This we cannot confirm — our crummy rental car blew a gasket in thick mud on the jungle road. We never got there.

And, of course, Zanzibar is just one of many islands in the archipelago. In our next column, we will hit the Jozani Forest, fail to take a usable photo of its famous colobus monkeys, buy more spice than is sensible, then hop in a boat and check out the offshore islands.

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