The name, Zanzibar, thrills the imagination and, writes Yvonne van Dongen so do its sights, sounds, smells and history.

Wouldn't you know it? No sooner have I posted my gloat photos of Zanzibar on Facebook, complete with captions boasting its funky laidback vibe, than the news makes a liar of me.

A passing motorcyclist throws acid in the faces of two young, modestly attired British women. Heinous. Horrible. And no, we can't just shrug and say, "These things happen everywhere."

Robbery happens everywhere. Muggings happen everywhere. But acid? That's what men in awful places do to punish women. It doesn't happen everywhere.

And in Zanzibar of all places. Having just returned from the island, I am truly surprised. Zanzibar had me convinced she was way too cool for such evil doings.


My cousin, who is married to a Zanzibari and has lived there on and off for nigh on 20 years, led me to believe the same.

The game face Zanzibar shows me is good-natured, noisy and colourful. Here, saris, kanzu (male shirt dress), kanga (African sarong), muezzin, church bells, Arabs, Indians, Africans and sun-seeking tourists rub shoulders, almost literally, in the teeny tiny cobbled streets, but never get in each other's way.

The Islamic island off the coast of Tanzania has the sort of messy muddled history that defies simple binary explanations.

The Assyrians, Sumerians, Egyptians, Phoenicians, Indians, Chinese, Persians, Portuguese, Omani Arabs, Dutch and English have all been here at one time or another. Under Omani Arab rule Zanzibar became the HQ of slave trading in East Africa during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Arabs have a long history of slave trading but African rulers also sold prisoners taken in battle to the trade. Meanwhile, famous Scottish missionary and explorer David Livingstone, who stayed in Zanzibar before setting off to find the source of the Nile, advocated the abolition of slavery. And, of course, there's the inimitable Freddie Mercury (aka Farrokh Bulsara), who grew up here.

World heritage site Stone Town has monuments to them all: the slave quarters near the Anglican cathedral, the altar of which stands on the whipping post of the former slave market, Livingstone House, now home to the Zanzibar Tourist Corporation, and a restaurant called Queen.

With such a big history on such a small island, (90km x 30km), tolerance is essential for survival. Even more so when you live cheek by jowl in overcrowded apartments set in streets so narrow you could practically spread your arms and touch both sides.

The Zanzibar I encounter starts in Stone Town and could end here such is its fascination. It's only 16sq km of crumbly gems but the life on the pedestrian-and-motorbike-only streets kept me walking round and round in happy lost circles for hours.

A store front in Stone Town. Photo / Yvonne van Dongen

I learned to head for the ocean, where the House of Wonders (now a museum) and a former sultan's palace, overlooks Forodhani Gardens, not so much a garden as a courtyard that comes alive at night with a food market. Here, buy crab and Zanzibari pancakes and wash them down with freshly-squeezed sugar cane juice. Then, full as a stuffed pig, sit back and admire the young men and women, dressed like brightly coloured parrots, promenade on the waterfront.

Or there's always one of the many rooftop bars from which to watch the sun set and the dhows glide by. Best of all are the hotels on the beach, like Tembo House, where you can watch fit young bucks practise gymnastic turns in the early evening.

Occasionally, we'd do tourist duty and visit something like a disused hammam (Turkish bath), the Arab fort or a spice farm run purely for foreigners' entertainment since Zanzibar is no longer the hub of the spice trade. But walking Stone Town was our first love and we left only because we had appointments on the mainland.

Before catching the ferry we toured the island by hire car, visiting a beach resort in Karafuu and two others in the hip northern village, Nungwi. The drive there revealed that most of the island's original forest is gone, although in the small, remaining untouched growth, Jozani forest, we spot a red colobus monkey.

Nungwi, with its powder-white beach and Bombay Sapphire water, deserves its reputation as Zanzibar's best beach, but the creeping development of dwellings right on the tideline do not.

It's probably why upmarket elegant resorts like Essque - a huge monument to Italian cool and a world unto itself - were built and why others, once lovely like the Casa Umaja, are increasingly being built out.

My cousin reckons Zanzibar is not the lovely untouched jewel it was when she first arrived. No doubt she's right but it still thrills with layers of culture and history and aesthetic delights.

As for the acid-throwing - well, to be honest, I haven't a clue why it happened. The word on the wind is that the Saudis are here trying to radicalise young males. I sensed nothing of this.

It's possible I was sheltered from ill-will because I knew Ire Apewe, my cousin's husband.

The born-and-bred Stone Town resident knows everyone and when he wasn't with us his name was a magic talisman. I had only to say it aloud and pesky tourist touts vaporised.
Feel free to try it. That's right. Ire Apewe. An incantation to ward off evil.

Getting there: Emirates' three daily flights from Auckland provide direct connections at Dubai with the airline's daily service to Dar es Salaam, with onward flights to Zanzibar on Coastal Aviation.

Accommodation: In Stone Town, the writer stayed with her cousin. The apartment can be rented. Otherwise hotels and guest houses abound.

Karafuu Beach Resort is great for families. Evening entertainment and meals are included in their packages.

Essque Zalu Zanzibar in Nungwi is a sleek, minimalist and expensive option.

Dining: Forodhani Gardens, where else?

Best rooftop bar: Try Maru Maru Hotel in Stone Town.

Yvonne van Dongen travelled with assistance from Emirates.