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Sunday, January 31, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Jamaica -- Women Head To Ocho Rios To `Get Their Groove Back'

AP

OCHO RIOS, Jamaica - It's a "Stella moment" on the beach.

A handsome young Jamaican with bulging pectorals strides up to three middle-aged women strolling barefoot by the sea. His opening gambit is an invitation to ride on his glass-bottom boat.

Then the real business: "Yes, mon, my friend and I noticed you last night. You were wearing sneakers," he says to one.

"Oh yeah?"

"We said, `Those are oldies but goldies!' " he continues.

"How dare you!" The woman's brassy American accent is a marked contrast to the melodious Jamaican one. "Didn't your mother teach you how to talk to ladies? `Oldies?' "

The women storm off past a fence that cordons off their all-inclusive resort, leaving their suitor behind.

David Patrick, about 30, scratches an ear ruefully but takes the rejection in stride.

"Women been coming in droves since that movie," he says.

He's talking about "How Stella Got Her Groove Back," last summer's movie about a woman who goes to Jamaica and falls in love with a man half her age and rediscovers her enthusiasm for life.

"It's not just Americans," Patrick says. "English women, Germans, Swiss - they all say the same thing: that they've come to get their groove back."

The movie was based on a book by Terry McMillan, whose book and movie "Waiting to Exhale" caused a similar sensation among black American women. She said she kept running into women who bought tickets to Jamaica after "Stella" became a bestseller in 1996.

The movie, starring Angela Bassett as Stella and Taye Diggs as her lover Winston, appears to have had even more of an effect.

"Jamaica couldn't have paid for the publicity we're getting," says photographer Ken Ramsay, referring to scenes that linger on white-sand beaches, turquoise and emerald waters, cloudless skies and exotic flowers.

Jamaica's Tourist Board has screened the film for U.S. travel agents and aired TV spots promoting the island as a lovers' getaway.

Board officials contend it's impossible to say if, or how much of, recent increases could be attributed to the movie. The board's figures for the period shortly after the movie's release showed a 10 percent increase over the same month the previous year. There was a 22 percent jump from the northeastern United States alone.

Mark Adkins, a manager at the public relations agency Adkins-Rome Entertainment and Marketing in Los Angeles, describes an enthusiastic response, with "a lot of women . . . saying they wanted to go to Jamaica to find their Winston."

"We're seeing groups of ladies coming together that look like the type Terry McMillan was writing about - more single ladies," says hotel manager Brian Sang.

Sang, executive manager of the Jamaica Grande resort at Ocho Rios on the island's north coast, says one visitor sent him a poem saying she and her girlfriends were "coming to get their groove back."

A new lexicon has grown around the movie.

"I've heard tourists say things like, `There's a Stella thing going on here,' " Sang says.

Sensual tourism is not new to Jamaica.

It's a country where resort hotels cost $200 a night and hotel workers make $80 a week, about what a prostitute earns in a night. While some gigolos may be content to have their entertainment and meals paid for, most expect money and gifts. For those who are not married and trying to earn money to support their families, the ultimate is marriage to an American and a ticket out of the poverty.

Official AIDS figures reflect the prostitution. The highest rate of AIDS infection is in St. James parish, which includes Jamaica's most popular tourist area at Montego Bay. There, 285 of every 100,000 people are infected, compared to a national average of 120 per 100,000, the government says.

Negril, on the island's western tip, long has been known as the place where some European women go to "rent-a-Rasta" - one of the beach boys who sport Rastafarian-style dreadlocks.

Ocho Rios is Jamaica's most popular destination for black Americans. Maureen Singh, owner of a dive shop there, says she is seeing a lot more middle-aged American women vacationing alone or in groups.

Singh adds that Jamaican men love women who might be considered overweight by American standards. "In their culture, they're told that they're overweight and ugly. But the men here love the big, fat women," she laughs. "They love them. They hope to marry them."

Back on the beach, the rejected Patrick says foreign women "just love Jamaican men."

As if on cue, the three women return.

Patrick strides up to the one who had chastised him, brushes against her and takes hold of her hand. She doesn't rebuff him. Emboldened, he snakes his arm around her shoulder and they walk off.

Ten minutes later he's back.

Spurned again?

"No, mon. I'm seeing her tonight," he boasts.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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