Once a low-rent, whites-only Las Vegas, Sun City is determined to reinvent itself as a glitzy surf-and-safari destination. But has anything really changed?

The glittering towers of the palace rise like giant's candles out of the black jungle. The silhouette of date palms provides a dark relief to the blinding sandstone of its walls. A fantasy forest of decorative columns gives way to metal domes, inlaid with huge tusks of ivory and in the light and shadow, bronze bull elephants rear up on impossibly large legs, while stone-carved gazelles with curved horns bound out of the walls high above you.

It's quite a welcome. Before you reach the lobby of the Palace hotel you have already completed a statuesque safari with a herd of antelope running to stand still across a wide pool. Two steps on and a ring of mythical horses crane their bronze heads backwards to spray water into the fountain.

The effect is overwhelming and surreal, but then it's supposed to be. The brochure for this hotel, often rated among the best in the world, speaks in Boy's Own adventure language of legends of ancient civilization and a great king whose palace was built at the heart of a volcanic crater.

The myth, just like the waterfall, the white sand and sparkling surf of the wave park, and the ruins of the ancient civilization, is manufactured. There was no lost city. There were no kings that ruled the caldera centuries ago. Instead, the resort was the brainchild of the controversial South African tycoon Sol Kerzner. It's ancient credentials stretch back an entire 13 years. And it is the centrepiece of an effort to rescue Sun City from its seedy beginnings as a low-rent Las Vegas for the Southern Hemisphere.

While the rest of the world was waking up to the evils of apartheid, the resort at Sun City was providing white South Africans with the opportunity to wake up to the dubious delights of high kicking showgirls. It was built in 1979 to capitalise on a loophole in gambling laws that exempted the Tswana tribe, in the dry bush lands two hours north of Johannesburg, from the otherwise strict regulations. It quickly became a casino oasis where those with money to spend could catch a lascivious show or see an international rock star pretending that playing Sun City was no different than playing Vegas.

Like everything else in South Africa, this resort has had to change. With the gaming monopoly gone now that the area is part of the north-west province of the country where gambling is no longer illegal, Sun City has had to start selling a different dream.

The basic theme is majesty. A clutch of luxurious new hotels, the jewel of which is the Palace, has been flanked with startlingly green 18-hole golf courses. The whole playground is finished off with the Pilanesburg reserve where the game on offer is the kind with trunks, horns and large teeth. The overall effect is African baroque. There is nothing low key, least of all the service.

It appears there is a delegation to meet me. A scrum of foot men relieve me of my modest luggage. They manage to muffle a feint note of disappointment that they are so much better dressed than I am. Standing in the entrance hall I'm forced to admit that what is fake is not necessarily diminished by being so. The crystal in the chandeliers is real, the carved columns soar a convincing hundred feet above my head and the mosaic floor really does contain hundreds of thousands of brightly coloured tile fragments.

I'm slumming it in the King's Suite tonight. My guide for the expedition it takes to get there, Roberto, makes subservient noises as the decorative scale lurches beyond luxurious, in the lobby, to outrageous, in my suite. His perfectly pressed Italian suit is peppered with enough badges to suggest a past gig as a translator at the UN headquarters in New York.

The first indication I have that I'm not bound for an average hotel room, comes when he mentions to me that this is Michael Jackson's preferred room. "He liked it so much he had some ideas on what we could do with the hotel."

You can see why. For all its grandeur the Palace is more Neverland than Macchu Picchu. Swinging open the oaken double doors into my lobby I realise the last time I heard mention of apartments this size was in Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities. It's gigantic. There is enough hardwood panelling to start a gentleman's club. This thought must have occurred to the decorator who filled the shelves in the office with leather bound editions of Punch. Maybe there's some gentle self-mockery in the presence of 19th-century satire from the Age of Empire.

Surveying my kingdom it becomes clear that monarchs sleep in four poster beds, but regents can be fickle so there's a choice of them. In fact, there's a choice of everything from leopard-skin armchairs in the office to bathrobes in the dressing room (with or without rose petals). I awaken to the sound of roaring water – briefly forgetting where I am, I haul back the hundred weight of heavy curtain and stagger onto the balcony for a dose of bright winter sun.

To my right tens of thousands of gallons of water are cascading down the rocks of a man-made waterfall, throwing up a mist that hovers over the botanical gardens. Looking the other way there is the startling green of one of Sun City's two 18-hole golf courses. Designed by Gary Player, there is predictably a choice of courses. Bold or beautiful. One offers picture perfect fairways, ornate lakes and dramatic wildlife – the 13th hole has crocodiles. The other offers a challenge to those with a different handicap than mine.

The climate appears to be perfect – the cool winter nights give way with the arrival of the sun to daytime temperatures in the high 20s. Reed cormorants perform an eye level fly by and swoop back into the trees on the far side of the largest swimming pool I've ever seen. I'm almost relieved to see a common pigeon taking a breather next to a stone frieze of a giant heron. It looks nearly as out of place as I do. It feels like it might be time to ferret out the old Sun City.

Boarding a minibus with the shorts-and-sandals brigade and heading to the entertainment centre is the fastest way to head downmarket. The casino, like any flytrap for the desperate, is open 24 hours. Technicolor carpets with headache-inducing patterns swirl in and out of plastic pillars built out of oversized casino chips. The atmosphere is heavy with cigarette smoke, the only internal area that shrugs off the no-smoking policy. Like any self-respecting casino the light is low and the temperature constant. There should be no reminder of the passage of time in the outside world.

Ranks of one-armed bandits dominate most of the floor with some tired looking red tables and a single roulette wheel stuck away in the corner. I'm told there are tables for high rollers beyond some velvet rope in the corner but this district of Kerzner's creation is more Atlantic City than Monte Carlo. As if to underline this, an unhappy man gets to his drunken feet at the blackjack table and waves his arms angrily at his lost fortune. He then staggers off to begin what is likely to be an expensive hangover. Losing your money may be the only authentic experience on offer here.

The entrance to Sun City is a sharp right-hand turn both from the main road – and reality. The dusty highways beyond are manned by weary young men hawking anything from mobile phones to fruit and nuts. The border, as that's what it feels like, is a set of well-guarded booths and barriers where only paying customers are welcome to pass. The night guard scowls at my driver with the suspicion reserved for someone seeking an undeserved entrance to the promised land. The tickets reluctantly issued are a passport into a different world, not so much at odds with the one outside as wilfully oblivious to it.

On the pristine white sand inside the wave park, rollers break and are sucked back into the machine that generated them. Apparently you can hire your own team of stunt surfers to give an extra edge to a corporate beach party.

It would be easy to forget that outside the volcanic crater the north-west is in the dusty grip of a serious drought. I'm reminded of this almost by accident later. Perched on top of one of the volcanic peaks to the north of the crater I have my back turned to the green of the luxury valley as I'm strapped into the harness of the world's longest zip wire. Trussed up and clipped on, there is a brief hiatus where you hang from the mountaintop, * *wondering how quickly you can travel into the burnt bush of the plain below. These musings are quickly blasted out of your mind by the force of the air rushing up to meet you as swoop the 2km down to the ground.

A cold beer is on offer to recover from the shock of flight as I hear the metallic scream of the next joyrider falling to earth. A retired Springbok rugby forward, he seems to generate a little more momentum than I could manage. Like most of the other people milling around a resort that can comfortably entertain 9,000 on a peak weekend, he is white. By now Sun City welcomes all the colours of the rainbow nation, but the majority of the non-white faces I saw belonged to the legion of workers who keep the resort running.

Before we can get past introductions a collection team arrives to whisk us away. Back at the welcome centre I'm ready for a game drive. Not content with building an ancient valley from scratch, the developers fenced off and stocked their own mini-game reserve in the adjacent 55,000 hectares of Pilanesburg park.

This is not the Serengeti. For those envisaging a breathless hunt across the endless plains in search of fleeting glimpse of one of the "big five" – lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and buffalo – this could be a bit of a culture shock. Pilanesburg offers fast food for those hungry for big game. It is safari-lite. Inside five minutes on our open-backed truck we've ticked off rhino – its horn breaking through the long grass – and a giraffe stripping leaves from a tree that's near enough to grasp and taste yourself.

As memory sticks on digital cameras begin to overheat, a pair of hippos paddle past in the lake and a bustling posse of guinea fowl flee at the sound of our engine. The guide, who made great play of loading his rifle at the gates of the park, begins to talk bullishly of surpassing the big five and ticking off the "magnificent seven" – a club that adds the cheetah and hippo to the ranks.

It's all a little too easy. The tarmac roads, the animals that appear almost on cue. The effect, rather than exhilarating, is that of a conveyor belt. This cynicism is broken by the appearance of a herd of elephants. A large bull squares up briefly to our truck – the guide reminds us that he could roll us like a matchbox car – before turning haughtily away. In the lengthening shadows a pup, his trunk outstretched, chases his mother, taking eight strides to her one before disappearing into the scrub.

Three hours on the malaria-free roads like this is a great introduction to big game, but for those who want to avoid the prospect of seeing a tour bus in the middle of their safari, the best thing to do is take to the skies. There can be no better way to see Pilanesburg than from a hot air balloon. In the subdued light of early morning the miles of parched bush that roll down from the rim of the extinct crater comes to an abrupt halt at the deep blue rim of the lake. Through binoculars crocodiles can be seen sunning themselves on the banks. The basket carries you noiselessly into the heart of the park where a soft landing is padded by the serving of a full English breakfast and a glass of champagne.

It's with some reluctance that I return to the ersatz Africa of the resort. As I'm chauffered back to the Palace a gang of off-duty workers wander lazily across the road. The driver seems annoyed at the delay. On the far side a group of black women clocking off for the night and escaping from the uniformity of their resort outfits shuffle, sing and smile without a regal customer in sight. For once there is no sign of an activities director, and the little piece of theatre is not part of the programme at the Cultural Village.

I'm reminded of the stock excuse rolled out by everyone from Elton John to Queen when asked why they had chosen to shrug off the boycott of South Africa at the height of apartheid and play the resort. They had always done so on the understanding that Sun City wasn't really South Africa anyway. As the towers of the Palace loom large and thoughts turn to the drive back to Johannesburg, I feel I can agree with that much at least.


Daniel Howden travelled with British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com), which flies twice daily from Heathrow to Johannesburg. Fares start from £680 return. Other airlines serving the city include South African Airways (0870 747 1111; www. flysaa.com), Virgin Atlantic (08705 747 747; www. virgin-atlantic. com) and Nationwide Airlines (0870 300 0767; www. flynationwide. co.za).

Doubles at the Michelangelo in Johannesburg start at R2,565 (£219); at the Palace of the Lost City R3,880 (£328), both room only. Book through Leading Hotels of the World (00 800 2888 8882; www. lhw.com).

South African Tourism (08701 550044; www. southafrica. net)