Mt Ruapehu is now a summer playground, thanks to new $25m gondola.

Mt Ruapehu is New Zealand's hottest new summer destination after the opening of the new $25 million Sky Waka gondola, located at Whakapapa.

While Mt Ruapehu has an international reputation as a winter snow sports destination, the opening of the world-class gondola has paved the way for a whole new summer menu of pastimes – once the exhilarating gondola ride reaches the top at 2020m above sea level.

The Sky Waka moves people from the Top of The Bruce to the newly renovated Knoll Ridge Chalet – and the gondola is an experience in itself. It was constructed in just eight months – remarkable for such a challenging project – with leather seats and other features by renowned Italian designer Pininfarina (associated with Ferrari and other famous car marques).

Ruapehu Alpine Lifts' General Manager Sales & Marketing, Michelle Caldwell, says the Sky Waka gondola takes visitors to just over 2000m at up to six metres per second and the mountain has summer attractions that open it up to many more visitors than those experienced in the ski season.

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"The Sky Waka ride itself is a unique experience," she says. "It takes you high over one of the most spectacular landscapes in New Zealand, past waterfalls and ancient lava flows and, if you're lucky, you can even see and touch the last of the winter snow.

"As you travel up the mountain, you'll see fantastic views of Mt Ngaruahoe and Mt Tongariro, and – if the day is particularly clear – you can even see over to Mt Taranaki on the west coast. The floor to ceiling windows provide for great photo opportunities on the journey and visitors of all ages can access and ride the Sky Waka.

"At the top, you can enjoy the incredible views overlooking the Central Plateau with a refreshment and light bite from the Pataka café, or better still, make a reservation at New Zealand's highest restaurant and enjoy a buffet lunch featuring produce sourced from local farms at The Pinnacles.

Mt Ruapehu is an active volcano and while there is no hint of rumbling or eruption at present, it always pays to keep an eye on the alerts here. It is also the North Island's largest mountain and the weather can change without much warning, so visitors should always arrive prepared for alpine conditions if they plan to venture out onto the hiking trails away from the Sky Waka and café facilities, says Caldwell.

There are some of the best short walks in the Tongariro National Park located at Whakapapa, including the Skyline Hike and Waterfalls Descent which both start at the top of the Sky Waka and the Meads Wall walk, made famous in the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy located at the base of the Sky Waka.

Once you've taken the jaw-dropping gondola ride, what else can you do? Here are the top things to enjoy while savouring the view you've just experienced – or attractions very close by:
•The Pinnacles – an award-winning restaurant at the newly fashioned Knoll Ridge Chalet at the top of the gondola ride, with 7 metre high windows providing an amazing view for diners. Open for buffet lunch, afternoon tea and buffet dinner on Fridays and Saturdays.

•Pataka Café – The name means The Larder and offers barista coffee and a la carte café-style New Zealand cuisine like burgers and other hot meals.

•The Back Bar – a great spot for a beer or a wine on the deck of the Knoll Ridge Chalet.

•Skyline route – one of the many short walks available after leaving the gondola, The Skyline route takes you from the top of the gondola (2,020m) to Skyline Ridge (2,300m) for breath-taking views of Mt Ngauruhoe, Lake Taupo and beyond (2.5-3 hrs return).

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•Waterfalls descent - From the top of the Sky Waka Gondola, walk down the same path as ancient lava flows and lahars past stunning waterfalls, rugged volcanic terrain and amazing views of the Central Plateau (1-2 hours descent to the base area).

•Meads Wall – The Lord of The Rings Trail, accessible from Whakapapa's base area. Follow cinematic history at moody scenery at Meads Wall, where several scenes from The Fellowship of the Ring & The Two Towers were filmed – a 15-minute walk (one-way) from Whakapapa's base area.

•Whakapapa Retail – for retail therapy; all mountain needs are covered with ranges of streetwear, headwear, eyewear, footwear and accessories, plus Whakapapa and Mt Ruapehu branded merchandise.