The best place to stay in Guangzhou (or Gong Jau, as it's really called) is the Oi Kwan Hotel - especially if you don't mind mould, a smell and wall colouring courtesy of a million cigarettes and carpets that do not invite close inspection.

But it's a three-star hotel with three-star prices, verging on two, and doesn't pretend to be anything else - so shut up, all you joyless grumblers on TripAdvisor!

Best seen from afar, this slim and elegant art deco-ish structure is perched on the edge of the Pearl River, smack in the middle of the beautiful remnants of Guangzhou's former grandeur, a legacy of a time when the city controlled much of the trade in southern China and hairy foreigners were safely stuffed away in their enclave on Shamian Island, a short stroll from the Oi Kwan.

This island, a sand spit really, has had something of a facelift recently. More than a bit shabby a few years ago, and propped up mostly by the White Swan Hotel, a centre of China's once-thriving adoption business, Shamian has recently seen most of its colonial buildings restored to their former glory. Yes, restored! Not knocked down.

The place is now full of Western-style bars and restaurants and is a magnet for wedding photographers. If you want to sip a beer at Hong Kong prices surrounded by enormous banyan trees, this is the place.

My friend A and I didn't want that. Not only are we too cheap, but drinking bad coffee in a place called Lan Kwai Fong in the middle of Guangzhou didn't seem very adventurous.

While looking for a daytime river cruise (it turns out, there aren't any before about 7pm), we came across a Family Mart convenience store with a balcony overlooking - no, overhanging - the Pearl River and a front-row view of the Oi Kwan and Guangzhou's wonderful shady river promenade, a feature Hong Kong could have if only our town planners had any sense.

Our disappointment over the lack of river transport was forgotten the next morning, when we went to the 17th floor of the Oi Kwan, sensibly turned into a revolving restaurant spinning at a sedate one revolution an hour, and could see not only the river but the entire city.

Guangzhou has an extraordinary collection of low-rise keh lau buildings (known as tong lau in Hong Kong), mostly built early last century and set in a warren of pedestrianised streets. And by far the best place to see them is from the top of the Oi Kwan.

But hurry. The skyscrapers are coming.