“Why aren’t you kissing the penguin?” asked the trainer. “Go on, put your lips on the penguin’s head!” I drew closer, puckering my lips, but hovering a centimeter from the downy feathers.
“Are you scared?” asked the trainer.
“Oh, ok,” the man agreed. “No need to kiss, then. Just cuddle.”
I obliged, stroking the soft penguin coat over and over, marveling at its silkiness. All too soon, my turn was up and the next person took my place.
If the fact that I snuggled a real, live penguin just blew your mind, prepare to be even more shocked. This arctic encounter did not occur on the ice of Patagonia, but rather in the 100-degree heat of Dubai, the tropical metropolis in the desert country of the United Arab Emirates.
The economic strategy of the United Arab Emirates is brilliant. Though flush with oil money, the country’s leaders realized that relying on oil revenue wouldn’t work in the long term, so they enacted a plan to make Dubai the leading tourist destination in the world. To accomplish this, they began building the biggest, best, and most astounding tourist attractions in the world. Of course, an indoor ski mountain (with penguins) was an integral part of this plan.
“Ski Dubai” opened in the Mall of the Emirates in 2005, featuring a 240,000 square-foot snow covered mountain with five different levels of skiing difficulty, including world’s first indoor Black Diamond ski run. There are also toboggan slides, climbing towers, and my personal favorite: a giant inflatable ball that you can climb inside to roll down the hill!
Now, if you’re going to have an indoor ski slope in the 100-degree desert, you might as well have a penguin cuddling opportunity too, right? Done! Ski Dubai teamed up with scientists dedicated to protecting penguins and constructed “The Most Sophisticated Penguin Habitat in the UAE.” From the Ski Dubai website: “Our kitchen is fully equipped to provide daily fish banquets to the penguins. The penguins are free to move around the private pool, top deck, and their private holding area.” Isn’t this so in keeping with Dubai’s reputation for luxury hotels? Hehe.
So how does this “Penguin Encounter” work? First, you put on the jacket, gloves, hat, snow-pants, and boots included in the price of your admission, since the temperature is kept at 30 degrees Fahrenheit. Ski Dubai even gives you extra socks to keep your footsies warm! Because Dubai is so hot year-round, few people in the city have jackets, so relying on visitors bringing their own winter gear would be a bad idea.
Next, you watch a short informational video about your soon-to-be “Peng Friends.” Important information is conveyed, specifically that first you will meet the Gentoo Penguins, who do not like cuddling, but subsequently, you get to chill with King Penguins (the world’s second largest penguins) who LOVE cuddles. You are instructed on the proper way to stroke your Peng Friends: from top to bottom, with one hand firmly on each side of their rotund torsos.
Then off you go into the penguin enclosure! A professional photographer snaps away as you befriend the tuxedoed cuties of the animal world. What struck me was how incredibly soft and silky the feathers of the King Penguin felt. The wings, on the other hand, are hard and rough like bone. (Did I have flashbacks of my hugs with tigers in Thailand? Yes!) Throughout all these cuddles, our Peng Friend stood patiently, soaking in the stroking and awaiting his yummy treat at the end. It was an honor to pet you, sir!
After my Penguin Encounter, I couldn’t stop smiling. I must admit that I was skeptical about how the experience would be, but I found it deeply moving — not to mention wildly sweet! I wasn’t quite ready to leave Ski Dubai, so I sat down and ordered the most beautiful hot chocolate I’ve seen in my life, which I sipped in the “ski lodge” in the lobby, gazing at a crackling fireplace.
When I boarded the flight to Dubai, never did I dream I’d find myself in a spot like Ski Dubai! Given that my hometown of Boston had its snowiest winter in history this past year, it’s comical that I flew to a 100-degree desert halfway across the world see a simulation of the cold we battled in Boston… but it’s kind of touching, too. It makes me realize that we humans crave a variety of experience, from hot to cold, including all things in between — especially penguin snuggles!
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I was a guest of Ski Dubai, but all opinions and penguin snuggles are my own.
The author, Lillie Marshall, is 6-foot-tall National Board Certified Teacher of English, fitness fan, and mother of two who has been a public school educator since 2003. She launched Around the World “L” Travel and Life Blog in 2009, and over 3.7 million readers have now visited this site. Lillie also runs TeachingTraveling.com and DrawingsOf.com. Subscribe to her monthly newsletter, and follow @WorldLillie on social media!