LEVY CO., Fla. (WTXL) - It's a place with historical charm and good eats! Tucked in the Nature Coast of Florida, Levy County is about 3 hours from Tallahassee, depending on where in the 1,400 square mile county you go.
Our first stop...the Dakotah Winery near Chiefland. Established in 1985 by Rob Rittgers and his father Max, the 20 acre vineyard of muscadine grapes is located a few miles north of the winery, where Rob is always ready with a bottle in hand for free wine tastings, no matter the time or day.
"Saturday is our busy time of the year," says Rob Rittgers. "People aren't working, they're out seeing stuff, and then, I think that, although we are open to the public, the only people that stop here are not necessarily people who are looking for wine, just out trying to experience life and seeing different things."
It's a stop Jerry and Gayle Stewart make when they travel between their two houses in Tennessee and Florida.
"We stopped several years ago just out of curiosity because we did like to go to different wineries and we like the places that are off the beaten path, so we stopped and we liked the wines," expressed Gayle.
"The act of fermentation starts in August and should be complete by Christmas time," explains Rittgers, "and then it will go into an aging process anywhere from one to three years depending on the wine."
Producing about 5,000 gallons a year of wine, The Dakotah Winery features nine wines, one juice and an eclectic atmosphere with a mix of antiques, specialty foods and gifts.
Patron Jerry Stewart says, "Most of the wineries you go to are like this one, they are family owned, they're not part of a large corporation or chain, it's a family business and they add their family touches to is, and it's just real enjoyable to visit."
"Wineries I think, are a little bit like snowflakes," explains Rittgers. "There are all different ones, they are all different. You think, oh its wine, well they're very unique and it's just an experience."
So our next stop is here in Cedar Key, also in Levy County, and we're told by locals to come to this place, it's called Tony's Seafood Restaurant. They're known for their world famous clam chowder, so of course, I had to come check it out.
Chef Eric opened Tony's Seafood Restaurant, named after his brother, ten years ago. Being a clam community, Chef Eric knew he needed a clam chowder on the menu, and after a few years, perfected a recipe. It won best clam chowder three years in a row at the Great Chowder Cookoff in New Port, Rhode Island by over 17,000 New Englanders.
I asked Kellie Parkin, the Vice President of Tony's Seafood Restaurant, if she could give away some of the secrets of what is in their clam chowder.
Parkin responded, saying, "It has, obviously, cream, butter, garlic, onions, and then it has a seasoning blend that I can't disclose."
This three time world champion chowder is so well known, people drive from all over the south to taste it at the restaurant. And it is now available for purchase in some grocery stores.
"It's nice, it lets us, makes us feel good that we're doing something really great for our community here," said Parkin, "and of course it makes us feel great that we can serve such an amazing product."
So I'm no clam chowder expert, but I have to say, this is the best clam chowder I've ever had, the perfect amount of spices, I ate the whole thing. But we've got one more stop, so let's go check it out!
Our last and final stop is the Island Hotel and Restaurant, here in Cedar Key, built in 1859. It's well known for it's hearts of palm salad.
"It was developed in 1940s by Bessy Gibbs," says head chef Kim Cash. "It's a fresh fruit salad with dates and hearts of palm, and the special dressing is an ice cream dressing with lime sherbert and vanilla ice cream and peanut butter."
Ice cream dressing?
"I know travel magazines a lot of times will put our hearts of palm salad as a must go try little 'where to go places', says go try the hearts of palm salad and its delicious," Cash says. "Its an unusual combination, but delicious."
I had to try it, and I agree...delicious it is! It's sweet, salty, nutty, and it's a salad! You can't beat that!
Finally, Chef Kim served us up a slice of their popular homemade key lime pie, recently featured in Southern Living Magazine.
So if you're looking to get away from the city life, relax, and have a culinary experience unlike any other...look to Levy County.