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For thought-provoking contemporary art, head for Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, Queen and King streets (tel. 06/759-6060; www.govettbrewster.com). You'll find major works by world-renowned, Christchurch-born kinetic artist Len Lye (who spent most of his life in New York), accompanied by an ongoing program of changing exhibitions. They also have a small but excellent gift shop and a very good café. The gallery is open daily from 10am to 5pm. Entry is by donation.

The Taranaki Museum underwent massive renovations during 2001-02 and reopened in 2003 as Puke Ariki, 1 Ariki St. (tel. 06/759-6060; www.pukeariki.com). The impressive two-wing complex rises up in the heart of the city, a groundbreaking knowledge center that houses the full public library, the museum, and the visitor information center. An air bridge connects the two wings. The museum showcases a major repository of Taranaki history, including many Maori treasures associated with the Taranaki tribes. "Treasures" is the name that encompasses all gallery spaces, each one focusing on different components of the Taranaki experience. Make sure you check out Taranaki Stories, which details the region's tumultuous Maori land wars, pioneer history, and current Taranaki life. The complex has two cafes and a large grass park. The museum is open Monday through Friday from 9am to 6pm (Wed until 9pm), and Saturday, Sunday, and holidays from 9am to 5pm (closed Dec 25). Admission is free.

The TSB Bank Bowls New Zealand Museum, Dean Park, Brooklands Road (tel. 06/758-0284; bowlsnzmuseum@xtra.co.nz), has the well-deserved distinction of being the only lawn-bowling museum in the world - over 8,000 entries on lawn bowling's history. The museum is open by appointment only; call first.

Three beautifully restored historic buildings you can visit are Richmond Cottage, Ariki Street; Te Henui Vicarage, 290 Courtenay St.; and the Gables Colonial Hospital, Brooklands Park Drive. The visitor center can supply details on their hours.

Outdoorsy types might like to cruise the Sugar Loaf Islands Marine Park, off the coast of New Plymouth. Chaddy's Charters, Ocean View Parade, Moturoa (tel. 06/758-9133; fax 06/759-9095; www.chaddyscharters.co.nz), will accommodate you on an English lifeboat. The 1-hour cruise takes you to the cluster of small islands, home to an astoundingly rich plant, bird, and wildlife population. The trip costs NZ$40 for adults, NZ$15 for kids ages 5 to 12. Fishing trips cost NZ$85 per person and require a minimum of six people.

And if you want to explore a quaint slice of rural life, pick up the detailed brochure and map from the visitor center and drive around the little knob of coast, formally State Highway 45, otherwise known as Surf Highway. As well as the premier surf spots, you'll find many small towns, access to Egmont National Park walking tracks, and more. The area has suddenly taken off, and a number of excellent new attractions have sprung up. Make sure you pick up the Oakura Arts Trail brochure from an information center, if you like to explore local arts and crafts.

In Hawara

In Hawera, a 50-minute drive south of New Plymouth, you'll find what is widely acclaimed as the best private museum in New Zealand. The Tawhiti Museum, 401 Ohangai Rd. (tel. 0800/921-921 in NZ; www.tawhitimuseum.co.nz), is the brainchild of Nigel and Teresa Ogle. It uses life-size exhibits and scale models - all made by Nigel - to capture the history of South Taranaki. The Tawhiti Bush Railway operates on the first Sunday of each month, weather permitting. The museum, once a cheese factory, is open December 26 through January daily 10am to 4pm; June through August Sunday only 10am to 4pm; the rest of the year Friday through Monday 10am to 4pm. Admission is NZ$12 for adults, NZ$3 for children 5 to 15, and free for children 4 and under. The railway costs NZ$6 for adults, NZ$3 children. The wonderful Traders and Whalers display, showcasing the Taranaki coast from 1820-40, costs NZ$12 for adults and NZ$6 for children. This amazing labor of love has won many separate tourism awards and is definitely worth seeing. You'll find another quirky stop at KD's Elvis Memorial Record Room, 51 Argyle St., Hawera (tel. 027/498-2942; www.digitalus.co.nz/elvis). This is where avid Elvis fan Kevin Wasley displays the astonishing collection of Elvis records and memorabilia that he has been gathering since 1959. It's open by appointment only, so phone first.

Visiting Gardens Galore

The Taranaki Visitor's Guide, available free from any of the region's visitor centers, lists 25 public and private gardens that are open to the public. That's just the beginning. Pukekura Park & Brooklands, accessible from Fillis Street, Brooklands Road, or Victoria Road, is a double hit of exquisite parkland that includes walkways, the Brooklands Zoo (daily 9am-5pm), playgrounds, a beautiful fernery (daily 8am-4pm), lakes, fountains, waterfalls, and specialist gardens. It's a free must-visit spot in any season. Between Christmas and February, try to visit the park at night to see the stunning TSB Bank Festival of Lights. Also in New Plymouth, the private native garden paradise Te Kainga Marire, 15 Spencer Place, New Plymouth (tel. 06/758-8693; www.tekaingamarire.co.nz), is open daily September through April 9am to 5pm, and costs NZ$10 per person.

The Pukeiti Rhododendron Trust, 2290 Carrington Rd., RD4 (tel. 06/765-7127; www.pukeiti.org.nz), has a world-class collection of rhododendron, azalea, and viraya set in centuries-old rainforest. It's a 30-minute drive from New Plymouth on Carrington Road; open daily 9am to 5pm (closed Dec 25). There is a cafe, shop, and display center, and admission is free. Two more must-see gardens offer free admission. Tupare, 487 Mangorei Rd. (tel. 06/765-7127; www.tupare.info), is open daily from 9am to 8pm in summer and 9am to 5pm in winter. Hollard Gardens, 1686 Upper Manaia Rd., Kaponga (tel. 06/765-7127; www.hollardgardens.info), is open daily from 9am to 8pm in summer, 9am to 5pm in winter. Kaponga, a small rural village, is about 1 hour from New Plymouth. From New Plymouth, head south on State Highway 3 to Stratford and turn right toward Dawson Falls. Turn left just past the village of Mahoe to get to Kaponga. The best time to visit is September through March.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.