Dreams of his own B&B danced like sugarplums in his head. But while learning the ropes of hotel management at an Irish inn, Henry Alford discovers it's not all tea and scones
Trapped by the twin demons of habit and finance, I've often entertained the fantasy of opening a bed-and-breakfast. It's a heady thought, quitting my job and devoting my life to cloth-covered jars of huckleberry jam. Instead of enduring the drudgery of nine-to-five, I would live a quaint, pastoral existence surrounded by freshly baked scones and feathery duvets. But I must admit that this vision of a better life was fueled mainly by frilly BBC costume dramas—I had no idea where to actually start. So it was with a mix of excitement and trepidation that I signed on for "Run Your Own B&B," a trip to Ireland during which I would work for a week at the very inn where I'd be staying. What would I encounter?Maybe I'd become extremely interested in antique lace or be asked to translate a lengthy "Do Not Use" Post-it into Gaelic. Maybe I'd need to wrangle Riverdancers in nightshirts or juggle volumes of moody verse. Perhaps the behind-the-scenes tumult of broken toast tongs and confused foreigners would make me conclude that Fawlty Towers was a documentary. I was hoping for my own version of Upstairs, Downstairs, a tweedy romantic comedy featuring hurricane lamps and a nosy matron played by any number of brittle graduates of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. I wanted Gosford Park without the murder. In short, I craved doilies.
Sceptre Ireland, a New York-based tour company, offers weeklong "working vacations" in Dublin, Lahinch in County Clare, or Killarney in County Kerry. I chose Killarney, as it sits on the edge of a dazzling 37-square-mile national park. B&B's require a lot of fresh air; guests should be in constant suspense regarding the sudden appearance of local cheeses and livestock. I flew to Shannon, where I picked up a car for the two-hour drive to Killarney. Once I arrived, I easily found my place of employ and residence, the four-star Abbey Lodge, an unpretentious stone house near the town's center. The Abbey was built in the 1960's, but its façade was enhanced three years ago with four arched Romanesque windows from a nearby church.
I was greeted by Muireann King, tomboyish but gracious beyond her 27 years (favorite expression: "Grand"), who runs the B&B with her father, John. Ushering me to the Abbey's living room, Muireann explained that I was to be the only Assistant Innkeeper (their cheery term for my servitude) in residence. I blanched as I envisioned myself carrying huge loads of firewood and drowning in a tidal basin of dust-covered Victoriana, not to mention missing out on a possible Downstairs, Downstairs romance. She then outlined my responsibilities: serving breakfast, cleaning rooms, making brown bread, taking reservations, and learning how to pull a pint of Guinness at a local pub. During our subsequent tour of the Abbey, the doorbell rang. "Oops, I have to get that!" Muireann trilled, suddenly disappearing. Chief among the occupational hazards of the hospitality industry is the tendency to flit.
The next morning at 11, I began my first task: helping a cherubic young Estonian employee named Kairi clean six rooms. Our ministrations were thorough, so it took us a good four hours. At first blush, the idea of cleaning rooms in the very establishment where I was billeted felt somewhat odd, akin to flossing my dentist. Gradually, though, I realized that this would be my opportunity to avenge every unclean hotel room I'd ever stayed in. This mandate before me, I scrubbed and dusted with a startling enthusiasm; my removal of a hair from room No. 22's tub was nothing short of triumphant.
Equally memorable was cleaning the room directly across from mine. The evening before, I had said hello to the gentleman staying in it; quite certain he didn't know I was an Assistant Innkeeper, I wondered what would happen if he returned to his room and discovered me neatening his socks. "I'm part of a guest outreach program," I imagined nervously blurting. "Love your travel tote!"
Kairi asked me if I was thinking of opening my own B&B. I told her that my hometown of New York City could certainly use some Irish hospitality and warmth. "I could call it, 'Give Us a Hug, Then,' " I said. Kairi blinked somewhat uncomprehendingly, producing an expression exactly midway on the smile-to-grimace continuum.
After cleaning rooms, I had the rest of the afternoon and evening off, as I would most days of my stay. I decided this was my time to investigate activities that guests might ask about: a bus tour of the Ring of Kerry, the circuit of jagged coastline and charming villages on the Iveragh Peninsula, or an exploration of the Gap of Dunloe, a glacial mountain valley. These trips under my belt, I could now sprinkle my conversation with the words stunning, craggy, and sheep-flecked. I also watched some very competent Irish dancing in the B&B's backyard (Muireann's mother teaches dance in an adjacent studio); my phrases here would be bracing, percussive, bring cotton balls. Knowing that one of an innkeeper's duties is chatting with guests, I tried to speak with as many Irish people as I could to see what they talk about. Apparently, most of the folk I met talk mainly about two things: 1) Young people aren't going into the priesthood anymore and 2) There's too much traffic in Dublin.
In the B&B of my imagination, characters in mobcaps and buckle shoes pester you awake at dawn, hurrying you off to a local battleground for the firing of cannons; breakfast is a furtive handful of pemmican and hardtack served amid the sulfur (more Last of the Mohicans than Are You Being Served?, I realize). Alas, the King family is far more relaxed and generous; breakfast runs from 8:15 to 9:30 in the sunny dining room. During two mornings of my stay, I helped set up, serve, and clean after breakfast.
I particularly enjoyed serving. "Tell them, 'The plate is hot. Mind,' " Muireann instructed, handing me a "full Irish"—two substantial rashers of bacon, three sausages, and a fried egg, all warmed under a broiler. Although I am American, I decided that her distinctively Irish directive—"Mind"—was important to the Abbey Lodge experience, so I quoted her verbatim to several diners. By my ninth guest, a woman in her twenties, I found myself counseling, perhaps too familiarly, "Mind the plate, love." When one diner opined that the Abbey's strawberry jam was good and thick, I took the opportunity to liken it to the traffic in Dublin.
On Sunday morning, all 15 rooms full, the dining room was humming. "Are you the one who's training?" asked a bespectacled man in his thirties.
"Do I detect anxiety?" I replied, hoping, as I did in all my dealings with guests, to strike a tone somewhere between briskly efficient worker bee and chortling, gin-blossomy leprechaun.
No, he assured me, he was "quite satisfied" with my performance. "Just wait," I told him, "till you see how gracefully I bring in your toast—it will be a poem."
Indeed, that day all bread-related matters brought a slight fulsomeness to my personality. The day before, with full-time employee Ann, I had helped make some of the bread. I'd like to tell you that this activity involved local monks and a granary, and that we'd made our own flour by smashing grains of wheat with our foreheads. That would be blarney. Rather, the stalwart 50-year-old Ann and I donned aprons in the Abbey's kitchen and used non-forehead-derived wheatmeal. Now, looking out across the dining room at all the guests, many of them happily gobbling my baked goods, I thought, They are all my children.
The unanticipated pleasure of this working vacation was that it let me give voice to a heretofore dormant character within me, a bossy but sentimental chatelaine of a certain age. Consider the dialogue I had with Ann one day when I saw her cleaning a room I'd cleaned the day before.
"He keeps a nice room," I commented.
"He's got three shampoo bottles, which I doan unnerstan'," Ann replied.
"A hoarder," I conjectured.
"Deprived of it as a youth," I said with motherly tact. Suddenly I was Joan Plowright.
On my last day, Muireann and I went into the small office she and her father keep at the back of the B&B, where we made reservations for e-mailed requests and she showed me the various Web sites and brochures that carry advertisements for the Abbey Lodge. Who knew that paperwork and public relations would rear its ugly head here in the charming world of coverlets and bed warmers?I made a mental note to hire someone practical when I open my B&B so that I can concentrate on my charm full-time.
When Muireann told me that the five members of a women's basketball team from Cork who had stayed the night before graced their room with vomit and blood, not to mention placing an hour-long, 200-euro, long-distance phone call at 4 a.m., I wondered aloud if the blood was related to the phone call.
"Maybe the vomit is. I'd be nauseated if I'd made a two-hundred-euro phone call," Muireann said. "Dad told me not to take them, but I said, 'They're athletes, they won't be on the piss.' "
That evening, it was I who was on the piss. An impish John King took me to Kayne's, a local pub, where he asked Karen, the ruddy barwoman, to teach me how to pull a pint of Guinness, the final step in my tutelage in the Irish hospitality industry. Karen patiently showed me how to tilt the glass—and to wait for the foam to recede, lest I serve someone a "bishop" (a surfeit of foam resembles ecclesiastical neckwear). The first pint I poured came out fairly bishoppy, but my second was clean. T'wasn't a bishop, t'was the Lord hisself.
Moments later, John and I were joined by the gentleman staying across the hall from me, whom I'll call Brian. Brian, John, and I sat for an hour, drinking and talking and laughing. I relished feeling as if I were half guest and half host—the Pan of hotel management. Moreover, I'd enjoyed my stay, and had drawn the conclusion that this "Run Your Own B&B" program is not merely a way to exploit the cheap labor of sentimental Irish-Americans.
At evening's end, as Brian and I were repairing to our rooms, I felt a need to confess something to my fellow traveler. I summoned my courage and looked him in the eye. "I cleaned your room the other day."
Brian looked slightly queasy at first, as if he'd taken a long ride in a much-too-small boat. But then he smiled and asked, "Oh, did you?"
"Yes," I informed him. "Very tidy."
This tour operator specializes in escorted trips to the Emerald Isle, as well as self-drive packages and excursions to popular golf destinations. The "Run Your Own B&B" program starts at $749 per person, including round-trip airfare on Aer Lingus, six nights in a B&B in Dublin, County Clare, or County Kerry, all meals, and a rental car.
OTHER B&B PROGRAMS
B&B Bootcamp Learn the various tasks needed to maintain a B&B—from manning the front desk and whipping up meals in the kitchen to bookkeeping and cleaning guest rooms—at the 25-room Elizabeth Pointe Lodge in Florida. The program starts at $1,050, including lodging and meals, for two nights.
98 S. Fletcher Ave., Amelia Island; 800/500-9625; www.lodgingresources.com
Bed & Breakfast Innstitute of Learning This California-based group has been offering business-oriented courses in B&B management since 1993; its three-day seminar, starting at $420 per person, covers everything from mastering the latest computer-reservation systems to creating an effective PR campaign.
3163 Life Way, Suite 300, Placerville; 800/631-9080; www.bbinnstitute.com
Oates & Bredfeldt William Oates and his wife, Heide Bredfeldt, have been running B&B marketing seminars for more than 20 years. Their popular "How to Purchase and Operate a Bed & Breakfast or Country Inn" course has trained more than 600 innkeepers.
40 High St., Brattleboro, VT; 802/254-5931; www.oatesbredfeldt.com