Rep-orting for Duty
Thomas Breathnach dons his tour operator uniform and gets the inside track from those who've upped sticks for slopes (and beaches) new in Soll and Lanzarote
You could call it the night shift. Along the snow-flecked road-sides of the A1 Autobahn, direction winter-wonderland, our coach geared its way into the Alpine night.
However, I wasn't heading for a week of DJ Otzi party Musik and casual slaloming, I was travelling to Ireland's winter playground to experience the behind-the-slopes action of life as a Topflight rep in Austria.
After a winding mountain transit through Austria, Germany and Austria again, my mountain mission brought me to the village of Soll, a picture postcard Tyrolean resort tucked into the snow-capped wilds of the Brixen Valley.
Trudging my suitcase along the fairy-lit village square, I checked into Gasthof Christophorus, a traditional Austrian inn where I was greeted by a silky-coated Gordon setter and a waitress, decked in traditional dirndl dress. Heim sweet Heim.
Fitting with all good business meetings in the Alps, I'd arranged to get my weekly rep run-down in the Whiskymuhle bar, just across the road.
My commander-in-chief was, in fact, a fellow rookie: 27-year-old Mike Jeffs from Chester, who was only three weeks into the gig. And he'd made quite the job switch, having just returned as an Apache attack helicopter ground crew member serving with the 6 Regiment Army Air Corps in Afghanistan.
"I was actually still out there when I did my interview with Topflight by Skype conference call," he told me.
"I was sure I didn't get the job because there was this awful time delay on the line – but now here I am."
Mike is one of two full-time reps stationed in tiny Soll, whose income is attractively bolstered by free accommodation, lift passes, ski-gear and all-you-can-drink Jagermeister.
"When you bring about 50 tourists into a bar, the owner looks after you," he laughed.
Next morning, after wolfing down a delicious Austrian breakfast of champions (hold the calf liver pate), I reported for duty.
Mike and I were sent off to collect some guest lift passes at the Ski-Welt office base, hitching a ride in his friend's minivan to fast-track the ascent.
"Oh, this bus has seen a lot of action," joked a young English lass from a rival operator on board.
Love seems to blossom quickly in the Alpine air. Many of the reps in Soll are English, though it's truly Irish territory come winter.
"I call it Ireland on ice," said Mike, whose culturally sensitive lexicon was already being infiltrated with the likes of "grand" and "what's the craic?".
Our morning duty involved suiting and booting the weekend's new arrivals before directing them on to ski-school or the gondolas.
While a typical Monday morning is often spent at the Topflight office photocopying welcome pamphlets and organising departures and the like, with Mike and I both being new to the gig we were off to shadow a ski-lesson recce.
Our guide was Fin Hughes, a goateed squire from, where else but Blessington, Co Wicklow, who when not shredding powder on the slopes moonlights as a church renovator.
And so off up the slopes we herringboned, upping hills and downing dales of Austria's largest ski-area with uber-enthusiastic Mike quick-firing answers on the local need-to-know.
We were schooled on red slope course lengths, altitude levels and vertical drop figures, and by the time we'd arrived back in the valley we were geared with more ski-course stats than a Sochi Olympic commentator.
What's most striking about Soll is the sense of fraternity within the resort. Everybody in the seasonal Jahrbuch soon becomes a familiar face. From quirky twins Karin and Andrea who run the local ski shop to Ingmar from the mountain gift store to Austro-dialect warbling Eddie, cheese-maker by summer and snow- cannon technician by winter.
Perhaps the biggest perk of the job, though, was grabbing a ride from snow-groomer Alex on his €400,000 piste-basher, an awesome snow tank that heaved us up the mountains amid the eerie twilight.
There was an element of a parallel universe to it all, with the dusky mountains only trafficked by a convoy of a dozen machines and the occasional ill-fated skier who'd missed the last gondola.
With Alex facing a 10-hour shift, I made tracks and joined Mike for one of the week's organised pub socials. A group of Welsh apres-skiers was setting the pace: downing steins of pils while providing a choral rendition of 'Sex on Fire'. Time check? 6pm. This was going to be a long evening...
Following a week of tobogganing classes, table quizzes and pub crawls, my merry sojourn had soon elapsed and I found myself cocooned in the early morning transfer coach back to Salzburg Airport.
"So how's everything at ground control?" I asked my transfer colleague, Terry, who was immersed in triple-checking her drop-off sheets. "Smashing," she replied. "We're 15 minutes ahead of schedule and ... not one single injury this week!"
Once disembarked at check-ins and after bidding the final guest farewell, it was a case of Auf Wiedersehen "Departures" and, with a quick terminal scoot, Willkommen "Arrivals" – the incoming flight from Dublin had just touched down and a new set of faces had to be greeted and ushered.
"Soll?" I inquired with a professional swagger as the masses approached. "You're in coach D2, so straight out the arrivals halls entrance and turn right."
Thomas travelled (and worked) with Topflight Holidays (01 240 1700; topflight.ie) which flies direct to Salzburg from Dublin, Cork and Belfast until the end of March. One-week breaks to the Alps start from €349pps and the operator also has a range of summer deals.
My ski-boots had barely defrosted when I discovered that my repping repertoire had been seconded to the south with fellow Irish operator, Sunway.
My apprenticeship had whisked me from the pine trees to the palms for my next episode: Lanzarote Uncovered.
"Don't even mention today's rugby!" began Sunway destination manager Linda Davidson, an ebullient Scot whose thick Stirling accent amplified across the coach tannoy.
"Now, how many of you have been to Lanzarote before?" she asked, panning the seats as a lone hand went up – mine.
"Well, you're in for a treat, it's been 28 degrees today," she announced, as sighs of ecstasy echoed across the bus.
Left with my uniform and an "Hasta mañana!", I was dropped off at my latest pad, the two star self-catering Aparthotel in the popular resort of Puerto del Carmen.
I felt less of a guest and more like a house-hunter from Channel 4's 'A Place in the Sun' upon arrival: "South-facing, comes with a pool with a close proximity to the beach and a Spar?" Sure, I could live here.
Come sunrise, and after several YouTube tutorials on the art of mastering the Windsor knot, I was off to meet Linda's right-hand woman, Oonagh McNicholl, for a morning of hotel visits and welcome meetings.
In full Sunway garb, my first obstacle, however, was how to negotiate the pool complex of early risers without being accosted by a forlorn new arrival.
An interception didn't take long. "Sorry, love," came a Dubliner's voice from across the palms, "Is the welcome meeting on now?"
"Erm, noooo," I replied, stalling my speech as I frantically flicked through my clipboard. "No, yours is at half-ten."
Waiting outside was Oonagh, a Westmeath native. "I hope you're ready to work – we've five hotels to visit this morning," she said as she zipped her Ford Focus through the narrow streets of Puerto del Carmen.
Beachside hotel San Antonio was our first port of call.
"Now, I can almost guarantee everybody will either be at the markets this morning – or else at Mass," Oonagh predicted, yanking the handbrake as we pulled up outside the foyer.
Sure enough, the empty lobby had all the hallmarks of a lazy Sunday, but our 20-minute wait simply bought me the time to learn how this Irish woman made the move from Athlone to Arrecife.
"Well, I'd been coming to Lanzarote for years," she began, "and when my daughter, Rochelle, came here to study Spanish, I decided to move down for a year and give it a try."
She stayed. Now she's been living la vida bonita and working with Sunway for eight years while blessed with a constant flow of repeat clients to lessen any home-sickness.
"I'll often get gifts from guests totally out of the blue," she said. "Bacon, bottles of gin ... I even got a few packets of Tayto the other day."
With not much stirring at the San Antonio or the next hotel, a noon meeting at our third property finally brought an audience. It was an all-Irish mix: a Limerick couple who were visiting here for the 12th time, a Dublin couple celebrating their anniversary and a gaggle of Corkonians who had just fled the city's floods. I took to my duties of handing out pamphlets and excursion options as Oonagh orated the A-Z of her insider tips, from the best sangria in town to the dodgiest jewellers.
"Buy silver in Lanzarote, but don't go buying gold here – there's been stories about that on Joe Duffy," she advised, addressing her flock with a warm, maternal concern.
A couple of days into my stint and I was already spreading my repping wings across the resorts, commuting around the Lanzarote locum, helping Oonagh with catamaran and drag-show bookings here and assisting Linda with property inspections there.
The Scot, of similar vintage to Oonagh, also shared a similar life-scéal, having made a break to the islands in her middle years. "It was actually my ex- husband's dream to move here," she revealed over some post-work tapas.
"But I've been here for 10 years now and he left after two."
Now she can't see herself living or working anywhere else. "You only get one life in this world, Tom, and I'm a big believer in carpe diem."
Work-wise, it was quiet on the issues front. "Great weather equals no complaints" is Oonagh's general rule of thumb. It wasn't long after I'd got to grips with another list of satellite channels and bonded with another workforce that I was off again, like the Littlest Hobo of holiday reps, making my way into the sunset.
"Keep the dream, Tom!" was Linda's parting salvo as I motored off to the airport.
And so I left Playa Blanca, driving through Lanzarote's barren lost landscapes of volcanoes and lava plains feeling truly inspired by a bunch of folks who'd upped-sticks from the conventional and moved yonder to follow their dreams.
From newbie Mike who was steering his snowplough towards a new career in the Alps to the Sunway ladies who'd found friendship and fortitude in the proverbial paradise island.
A place in the sun
Sunway (01 231 1888; sunway.ie) flies to Lanzarote year-round with direct flights from Dublin, Cork, Shannon and Knock. One-week packages with the operator starting from €384pps. Sunway also has a special single-parent deal (1 adult + 1 child) for the Puertocarmen Aparthotel in May.