A retired travel agent’s place in the sun

She has come here every year for the past 24 years, celebrated her birthday here for the past 10 years, and has been responsible for sending hundreds of tourists here.

Mrs. Stephensen

Mrs. Stephensen enjoys Seven Mile Beach during her most recent visit. Photo: Cliodhna McGowan

‘I just love this place,’ retired travel agent Vickie Stephensen says of the Cayman Islands. She is taking a break from the beach to talk to the Caymanian Compass in her lodgings at Plantation Village Wednesday afternoon.

‘On the 12th of May it will be 24 years that I’ve been coming here,’ she noted.

In 1983 the then travel agent, who lives in Eagle, Idaho, was first brought here on a familiarisation trip with a group of other agents.

‘I found my place in the sun,’ she says.

She returned the very next month on a cruise with a friend, and instead of going on a planned trip to England the following October, came back to Grand Cayman for a week. She returned the following January and May.

She was hooked.

Every single year since then this friendly lady has come to the Cayman Islands at least once on vacation, but some years as many as five times. And, her boss at Thunderbird Travel in Aurora, Colorado sometimes let her come here with clients.

So, what has been the draw?

‘I think getting away from the rat race; the peacefulness and the cleanliness and most of all the people,’ she said.

It is the friends she has made over the years that keeps her coming back time and time again.

One thing she is not pleased about, though, is the numbers of large condo and hotel complexes that have sprung up on the West Bay Road. ‘It’s beginning to look like Miami,’ she said.

One of her most heart-warming times here was when she visited following Hurricane Ivan. In January 2005 she toured the island with her niece, daughter and a friend. ‘I thought my heart was going to break,’ she said. ‘But I had to come, and everyone that I talked to thanked me for coming. That just blew my mind. I said, ‘Well I had to come back and make my contribution to the economy’.’

Although the island has recovered well since then, she herself knows that some people have not fully recovered from Ivan. ‘People’s day to day lives haven’t recovered,’ she said, adding that tourists would not notice this. But Mrs. Stephensen is quick to point out that she does not consider herself to be a tourist, and laughs.

‘It’s always a lovely place to come to. It’s like coming home.’

Of visiting here for the past 10 years for her birthday, she says, ‘It’s so much easier to get older here than it is anywhere else.’

This is partly due to the exchange rate, which makes her much younger, she said.

‘So how old are you Vickie? Well it depends on whether it’s in US or CI,’ she says jokingly.

So, although she did not want the public to know her US age, it is CI63.

On 21 April, she celebrated her birthday, where she danced the night away at Royal Palms and treated everyone there to her birthday cake.

Celebrating with her was niece Suzanne, nephew Tracy, daughter Kristen, granddaughter Kristi Rae, son Mark and his wife Doneta.

Over the years she has sent hundreds of people here through Thunderbird Travel.

‘One time I think I was the travel agent that sent the most people to the Cayman Islands in the state of Colorado,’ she commented.

‘My boss used to run an inch ad in the Denver Post on Sundays in the travel section and all it said was ‘Cayman Islands Thunderbird Travel’ and our phone number and it was amazing how many calls we would get, and whenever somebody would call and enquire about the Cayman Islands they’d say, ‘Hey Vickie, you got a hot one’.’

She started out staying at the old Holiday Inn (where the Ritz-Carlton is now) all those 24 years ago.

‘What was so neat about that was you met the natives there: the people who worked in the hotel, the people who showed up for happy hour. I learned the histories of more families sitting at that beach bar, and to this day people will still come up and say they remember me from the Holiday Inn.’

In fact, when the old Holiday Inn closed some years ago, she was then interviewed by the Caymanian Compass as the last customer to be served there.

But, there doesn’t seem to be interaction with the locals anymore, she said.

‘I’d say 96 per cent of the people that come here never get the chance for that interaction, which is very sad.’

She has also stayed at the Grand Cayman Marriott Beach Resort, a place where there are a lot of Caymanians working, in her opinion. In fact a very good friend of hers, Neelley Dilbert, is the bellman there.

She has also stayed at Plantation Village over the years as her friends own a timeshare there.

While in Cayman she spends most of her days on the beach, people watching, and reading. The only time she loves to dance is when she is in the Cayman Islands, and at Royal Palms she really kicks her shoes off.

She hopes she will be dancing here right up to her US90th birthday in her very special place in the sun.

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