As you wind your way down Highway 116, tracing a path along the Russian River banks from Guerneville to the sea, don't blink. You might miss the hamlet of Duncans Mills, and that would be a pity. This village may be small, with a population of just 85, but it holds enough gallery hopping, boutique shopping and river attractions to fill an entire weekend -- or a golden afternoon as you head for the coast.
It's a town with an illustrious past, named for brothers Samuel and Alexander Duncan, whose mill supplied San Francisco with the redwood lumber to build those gorgeous Victorians back in the 1870s. When the 1906 earthquake hit, most of the town was flattened, including its big hotels, restaurants and the Northwestern Pacific depot, where trains once stopped en route from Cazadero to Sausalito.
Today, this tiny town is home to boutiques, galleries, restaurants and a coffee house, rodeo grounds, inns, campgrounds and the historic railroad depot, which was rebuilt in 1907. The trains haven't rolled since 1935, but you can still admire the Northwestern Pacific box cars, coach and caboose -- and peek inside the depot museum, on the occasional days it's actually open.
Fortunately, the absence of a museum schedule doesn't matter a bit, because there are plenty of things to keep you entertained. Here are five to get you started.
It was the nation's Bicentennial celebration that spurred a massive renovation project in Duncans Mills, turning Country Stores -- the hotel and livery launched by Pony Express rider Christopher Queen -- into a collection of charming shops and wisteria-draped decks on the north side of the two-lane highway. Foodies will be smitten by Mr. Trombly's Tea and the new Mr. Trombly's Table (both owned by Brian Trombly), where you can score polka-dot bowls, chicken-shaped timers, local olive oils -- including a particularly nice EVOO from Cazadero's Best Dog Ranch and Meyer Lemon Olive Oil from Sonoma Harvest -- and a colorful array of custom spice blends and condiments. We brought home a little bag of highly addictive seasoned pepitas to strew on our Meyer lemon olive oil-dressed salads. Served in a polka-dot bowl.
You could spend an entire afternoon browsing Duncans Mills' antique shops and art galleries. We were charmed by Lisa Switzer's Antiquarian/Florabunda, an antique and fresh flower shop tucked inside an old log cabin and filled with vintage vessels, antique books and charming displays of antiquarian fare. Take a turn on the antique pump organ -- the early 20th-century sheet music is provided -- and you'll rethink any preconceptions you may have about mousy church organists. A leisurely tread doesn't generate enough air to power the bellows. You have to hit the treadle at a vigorous run to play "You and I."
Art lovers will want to explore the stunning nearby Christopher Queen Galleries, which specialize in early California and contemporary art. There are treasures everywhere, but make sure you venture upstairs where the work of the early artists of the Bohemian Club, 1870 to 1920, is displayed salon-style. Among the artists: Thaddeus Welch, Julian Rix and William Keith (a collection of his landscapes is housed at Saint Mary's College Museum of Art, as well).
This may be river territory, but it's Sonoma County, after all. Taste your way through the menu of local wines at Duncans Mills' new wine bar, Sophie's Cellars, or head up Highway 116 to Korbel, the sparkling wine house, or one of the other wineries nearby, such as Russian River Vineyards in Forestville.
Fair trade coffee beans are roasted on the spot at the Gold Coast Coffee and Bakery, and live bands play all summer long at the Blue Heron, but if you're looking for brunch or lunch, head for Cape Fear Cafe, where a Hangtown Fry and various variations on the Benedict theme -- with salmon-crab cakes, for example, or shrimp and grits -- vie for attention with buttermilk waffles, pepperjack omelets and other tasty fare.
Kayak and canoe enthusiasts flock to the Russian River for its paddling delights, but Duncans Mills offers other recreational possibilities, too. The Russian River Rodeo Association hosts an annual rodeo, as well as barrel races and play days during the summer. But if you really want a blast to the past, check out the town's Civil War Days, a two-day historical re-enactment -- July 19 and 20 -- that organizers say is the largest in Northern California and one of the largest west of the Mississippi River.
It's a living history re-enactment of 1863 Virginia, from blacksmith demonstrations to twice-daily Civil War battles, cannons and all.
Shops and galleries: Find Mr. Trombly's Tea at 25191 Main St. and the new Mr. Trombly's Table just across the deck; www.mrtromblystea.com. Christopher Queen Galleries is at 4 John Orr's Gardens; christopherqueengallery.com.
Find information on other Duncans Mills shops and galleries at www.duncansmills.net.
Noshes and sips: On the north side of Highway 117, grab breakfast, lunch or dinner daily at the Cape Fear Cafe (25191 Main St.) or sip a little wine at Sophie's Cellars (25179 Highway 116; www.sophiescellars.com), open Thursdays through Mondays.
On the river side, the Blue Heron Restaurant and Tavern offers lunch and dinner, and live music on Sundays on the patio;
(25300 Steelhead Blvd., blueheronrestaurant.com). Grab bear claws and fresh-roasted coffee at Gold Coast Coffee and Bakery (25377 Steelhead Blvd.)
Play: Camp at Casini Ranch Family Campground and you can launch your own kayak or canoe -- or rent one of their watercraft -- anywhere along the mile-long beach; www.casiniranch.com. Civil War Days at Duncans Mills is July 19 and 20 (9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and until 3 p.m. Sunday) on the fields adjacent to Freezeout Road. Tickets (cash only) are $12 for adults, $6 for kids ages 6 to 12, and parking is $5 per car. Find the schedule and directions at www.civilwardays.net.