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Australia: Shark Encounters

By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 5, 2006

Q. Is there a company in Perth, Australia, that can arrange a two-day side trip to Ningaloo Reef Marine Park? I'd like to swim with a whale shark.

Dan Nielsen, Alexandria

A. Ningaloo Reef Marine Park in Western Australia is, yes, swimming with whale sharks -- hundreds of them. "Ningaloo is a very good place to go see them," says George Burgess, director of the Florida Museum of Natural History's Florida Program for Shark Research.

Australia is protective of its fragile marine ecology -- the 160-mile-long Ningaloo is the country's longest fringing coral reef -- and sets limits on human-animal interaction. Therefore, find an accredited tour operator who not only knows the popular whale shark hangouts but also can educate snorkelers on the rules of engagement. "You don't want to grab their tail or touch them, go for a ride or do anything that alters their natural behavior," says Burgess of the world's largest shark, a gentle giant that can measure up to 50 feet and weigh nearly 15 tons.

To visit the park, you can do it yourself or use a package -- however, Norma Dugger, an Australian specialist at Portfolio Travel (202-966-4111, http://www.portfoliotravel.com/ ), said it would be difficult to do the side trip in two days. To book your own excursion, Skywest flies round trip from Perth to Exmouth for $400. From April until June, whale shark tours operate out of Coral Bay or Exmouth on the Coral Coast; you can book online at the Exmouth Visitor Centre ( http://www.exmouthwa.com.au/ ). Lodging ranges from chalets to a non-air-conditioned six-bed mini-dorm ($17). For a list, see Ningaloo Reef Dive ( http://www.ningalooreefdive.com/ ), which also organizes snorkel and dive trips. For more info on the region: Tourism Western Australia, 011-61-8-9483-1111, http://www.westernaustralia.com/ .

If you have more time, Australian Pinnacle Tours in Perth (011-61-8-9417-5555, http://www.pinnacletours.com.au/ ) offers a five-day Monkey Mia and Ningaloo reef package from $625 per person twin share. The trip includes transport, tours, breakfast and lodging. It also leads a one-day Coral Bay and Ningaloo Reef tour for $90, but it departs from Carnarvon.

My son has a sensitive peanut allergy. Which airlines no longer serve peanuts aboard domestic and international flights?

Helen Mondloch, Fairfax

In recent years, some airlines have replaced peanut snacks with less-controversial pretzels. The Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network, an advocacy group in Fairfax, maintains a list of carriers that are sensitive to fliers with peanut allergies. For example, American, United, Northwest, JetBlue, Spirit and ATA are peanut-free, as are Aer Lingus, Alitalia and British Airways. Some airlines are not so clear on their peanut policy: Due to the US Airways-America West merger, peanuts and pretzels are served at random -- and there is no way to find out in advance which will be offered. Meanwhile, carriers such as Delta and Alaska airlines do serve the nut but have created peanut-free zones. Just be sure to request seats in this section when making your reservations. FAAN also suggests passengers "reconfirm the peanut snack policy when booking reservations."

For international flights, order meals that are peanut-free. While refined peanut oil is not allergenic, Patrick Archer, president of the American Peanut Council, says, "there is no international standard for refining, so you can't make an absolute statement that refined peanut oil is non-allergenic."

Your safest bet is to carry your own food. Also, remember to pack injectable epinephrine and a doctor's note, so you won't be questioned at security checkpoints. For other tips, contact FAAN (800-929-4040, http://www.foodallergy.org/ ).

My sister and I are going to Santa Fe. Do you have restaurant suggestions?

Robbie Laursen, Annapolis

In New Mexico, chilies are so pervasive, locals joke that the state question is "Do you want red, green or Christmas?" Fortunately, "you can't get a bad meal in Santa Fe," says Susie McClendon of the Santa Fe School of Cooking. But you can drop $100 or $200 for dinner.

For upper-end eating, McClendon recommends Coyote Cafe (132 W. Water St., 505-983-1615), Geronimo (724 Canyon Rd., 505-982-1500) and Santacafe (231 Washington Ave., 505-984-1788) -- but she warns that their menus are more eclectic and fusion, with ingredients "not used by a home chef."

For more authentic dishes with moderate prices, McClendon suggests Tomasita's (500 S. Guadalupe St., 505-983-5721), Maria's New Mexican Kitchen (555 W. Cordova Rd., 505-983-7929) and the Shed (113 1/2 E. Palace Ave., 505-982-9030). You can also sample native cuisine, and pick up some culinary tips, at the Santa Fe School of Cooking (800-982-4688, http://santafeschoolofcooking.com/ ), whose three-hour classes range from Southwest tapas to Chile Amor.

For more information on travel to Santa Fe: Santa Fe Convention and Visitors Bureau, 800-777-2489, http://www.santafe.org/ .

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