HAIKOU (海口, hǎikǒu) is Hainan’s steamy capital, set at the north of the island and separated from Guangdong province by the 30km-wide Qiongzhou Channel. For most visitors, Haikou is little more than a transit stop en route to Sanya, but the city and nearby coastal towns are looking more and more to get their own piece of the tourist pie. If you can resist heading straight to Sanya, it’s worthwhile spending a couple of days around here and hopping between towns along Hainan’s east coast – home to some of the few surfable beaches in China. This is the part of Hainan longest under Han dominion, and it’s a good way to get the feel of the island.

Business centre, main port and first stop for newly arrived holidaymakers and hopeful migrants alike, Haikou has all the atmosphere of a typical Southeast Asian city. There’s a smattering of French colonial architecture, a few parks and monuments, modern skyscrapers, broad streets choked with traffic and pedestrians, and the all-pervading spirit of commerce. An indication of the ethos driving Haikou is that nobody seems to be a local: officials, businessmen and tourists are all from the mainland, while Li, Miao and Hakka flock from southern Hainan to hawk trinkets, as do the Muslim Hui women selling betel nuts – all drawn by the opportunities that the city represents. More than anything, Haikou is a truly tropical city: humid, laidback, pleasantly shabby and complete with palm-lined streets, something particularly striking if you’ve just emerged from a miserable northern Chinese winter.

The old quarter, boxed in by Bo’ai Bei Lu, Datong Lu and pedestrianized Deshengsha Lu, is the best area to stroll through, with its grid of restored colonial architecture housing stores and businesses. Jiefang Lu and Xinhua Lu are the main streets here, especially lively in the evening when they’re well lit and bursting with people out shopping, eating and socializing; there’s also a busy market west of Xinhua. Otherwise, Haikou Park (海口公园, hăikŏu gōngyuán) and its lake are small but quite pleasant, particularly in the early morning when the park comes to life with martial-art sessions, dancing and games of badminton.