WHEN Venetian traveller Marco Polo passed through Kinsai in the 13th century, he praised the Celestial City as ''pre-eminent, among all others in the world, in point of grandeur and beauty.'' Today the name of the city has changed to Hangzhou, but the beauty has remained. Post-war city planning didn't bury the city in grey concrete as it did in so many other cities, and Hangzhou preserved some of the charm and splendour from the days when it was the capital of the southern Song dynasty. Marco Polo travelled four days to Hangzhou from nearby Suzhou by land. I took the plane from Guangzhou and landed in less than two hours on the sparsely lit landing strip. After claiming baggage in the arrival hall, a little dilapidated aluminium shack with a modern conveyor belt built into it, I squeezed into a bus to the city. Hangzhou is a prime holiday destination for mainland Chinese, on par with Guilin; this doesn't mean, however, that there is also a developed tourism infrastructure. In the hotel where I had made bookings, a curt employee brushed me off with ''meiyou''. I did not know what she meant, but I certainly wasn't welcome. After getting the same treatment at a couple of nice, colonial-style hotels, I gave up trying to stay somewhere with character and checked into the faceless Overseas Chinese Hotel. A student and part-time travel guide told me later that it was off-season and that most hotels were empty. ''Meiyou'' in this situation translated something like: ''I am state-employed and don't feel like working right now''. But the view I woke up to the following morning was ample compensation for the hotel's drabness. In front of the window stretched West Lake, a four square mile fresh-water lake with little pagodas and pavilions poking out from the islands and surrounded by rolling hills. The biggest island, Gushan Hill, is connected by the Baidi causeway. The other big island, Xiaoyingzhou, can only be reached by boat. ''Men who want to enjoy their pastime in the company either of women friends or other men can hire one of the barges, which there are on the lake a great number of,'' wrote Marco Polo. Today's vessels might not be as luxurious as the one's he described (they had ''every furnishing needed for a party''), but at weekends Chinese families still flock to the boat-rentals to get to the islands. West Lake originally was a lagoon of the Qiantang River which was dredged and cut off from the river completely in the eighth century. Xiaoyingzhou was formed 800 years later. It consists of small rims with walkways and pavilions surrounding four big ponds so giving the playful theme of ''an island in the lake, and a lake in the island.'' On the south side of the isle, three pagodas protrude from the water. In mid-August the moon is reflected in the water between poles and the locals put candles in the hollow tops of the poles. The lake has also left its mark on the local cuisine. Sweet-and-sour fish from West Lake is one of the delicacies, and if you eat in one of the little restaurants next to the marketplaces you know that it is fresh. The waitress rushed out with the fishjumping in her hand. The Louwailou Restaurant on Gushan Hill serves excellent sauteed eel slices and ''Fresh shrimps with Dragon Well tea'', the other speciality Hangzhou is famous for. But you have to be there soon. It is state-run and closes at 8 pm. The handsome spacious buildings on the border of the lake and the court of King Facur mentioned in Polo's book have given way to colonial buildings from the days when Hangzhou was a retreat for Shanghai businessmen, but it is still a pretty walk. Alongside Beishu Road you pass Baochu Pagoda which was originally built in 938 to ensure that Hangzhou's Prince Qian Chu made a good impression during an audience with the emperor (what you see today is a 1933 reconstruction.) A few metres past the Shangri-La Hotel stands the Mausoleum for General Yue Fei, a heroic commander who defended Hangzhou from the Jurchen invaders in 1141. Victorious on the field, he was defeated in court by a treacherous official and executed. Some 20 years later Song emperor Xiao Zong rehabilitated him and buried him at the present site. The bus stop in front of the mausoleum is a good opportunity to hop on the Number 7 to Hangzhou's main attraction, the Temple of Inspired Seclusion, Lingyin Si. From the bus terminus a little walk takes you along a stream up to the temple. Facing you from the other side of the stream are 330 Buddhas carved into a rocky hill. Even though they are now mostly hidden by Chinese posing for family pictures (mini-entrepreneurs have even set up little shops for this purpose), the Buddhas radiate a peaceful atmosphere and prepare you for the 20 metre statue of Sidhartha Gautama in the Great Hall. The story goes that Zhou Enlai himself saved the temple and the buddhas from destruction during the Cultural Revolution. The monks, however, were sent to work in the fields.