Duncans Mills’ leisurely pace, handcrafted goods beckon

Blink and you’ll miss the tiny, charming town of Duncans Mills, located along Highway 116 and only 4 miles from the Sonoma Coast.

Over the Russian River and through the hills, the picturesque, artsy community is packed with a cluster of about 20 local shops, art galleries and cafes.

“It’s right on the way to the ocean, so it’s a great place to stop if you’re going out there,” said Maia Sturtevant, an employee at the Duncans Mills General Store.

Home to fewer than 200 people, the historic town is a charming, leisurely corner of west Sonoma County for visitors to shop for local, handcrafted gifts, eat a meal or sip wine while soaking in the views.

The General Store, built in 1888, is right off of the highway and has a deli that serves freshly made, customized sandwiches with pastrami, turkey and roast beef smoked on-site. It’s a good spot to pull over, hop out of the car, and spend an afternoon exploring on foot.

“The locals are really friendly and we’re always happy to have people come in,” Sturtevant said.

One adorable addition this year is the Duncans Mills Tea Shop, which opened in March during the tail end of the worst flood in the county in a generation.

“We opened up during the week of the flood and then we had no power and there were evacuations,” said Cathy McLaughlin, who opened the business with her husband, Michael. “But I feel very blessed and we’ve been very well-received.”

Nearby business owners proposed the McLaughlins open the tea shop, which offer 150 varieties of loose leaf tea, after a previous tea shop in town closed up. “I didn’t want an empty shop in our town,” McLaughlin said.

The tea shop is in a tiny building with a red door and wooden shake siding painted olive green, located just a stone’s throw from the general store behind the Cape Fear Cafe. Inside there’s jars of all kinds of tea: black, green, herbal, rooibos and more. Each jar has a description, a sample to sniff and steeping instructions. There’s also other gift items, including tea strainers, scone mix from Santa Cruz, spices, jams and decorative items.

“People say it’s a calming store,” McLaughlin said.

A few feet over from the tea shop is Antiquarian and Florabunda, an eccentric store that sells antiques, jewelry and flowers. Inside there are red and green cabinets reminiscent of the exterior tea shop decor.

Lisa Wallen has owned the store for 16 years, and her family also owns the Depot Museum in Duncans Mills, which is just across the street on the other side of Highway 116. Wallen specializes in using the protea flower in her arrangements, grown in nearby Jenner.

“It’s a wonderful gift destination,” Wallen said of Duncans Mills.

The Depot Museum is a railroad station restored by Wallen’s family, who were recognized in 1971 by the California Historical Society for best restoration. The North Pacific Coast railroad came to the logging town of Duncans Mills in the 1870s until 1935.

Around the corner from Wallen, Angela Lee helped two young men with gift ideas on Monday in her store, Cetonia Bath & Body.

“This place is everything my sister loves,” one of the customers told her as he checked out.

Lee has owned Cetonia for nearly three years. She makes her own line of bar soap, essential oil sprays and bath salts on-site.

The soap scents are everything from redwood, lemon grass, sandalwood, Sonoma blossom, lavender and more. Travel-sized skin and hair oil sells for $9 a bottle, and she has gift sets of oil, bath salts and soap for $15.

“It’s a perfect spot for unique, local, handmade items,” said Lee, who originally started selling her products out of her husband’s consignment store Twice As Nice, located next door to the general store.

Nancy Ferrerira, Wallen’s sister and owner of the Christopher Queen art gallery in Duncans Mills, wholeheartedly agreed with Lee’s sentiments.

“We are a purveyor of beautiful things,” said Ferrerira, whose gallery represents 10 artists, including Santa Rosa-based painter Sergio Lopez.

“We’re a really close-knit group of people. Most of our merchants have been together for years.”

Jocilyn VanRillaer, manager of Pig Alley, a gift shop filled with American pottery, jewelry and knick-knacks, described the community as “mellow and laid back.”

“It’s a whole day’s worth of meandering,” VanRillaer said of Duncans Mills. “All the shops have unique items that are not mass-produced.”

Locals say the community is as a place where many artists live, and where artists and makers are appreciated and valued for their labor and skills.

There are shops like Worldly Goods, where you can find shawls made from Peruvian alpacas, sweaters made from bamboo-cotton blends, striped Ecuadorian hammocks.

And there’s On Quilted Wings, a quilt store that also takes custom orders and provides quilting classes.

The community claims to also have the world’s largest collection of liquid metal jewelry at Studio Nouveau, which also sells exotic chocolates.

Duncans Mills is a dog- and kid-friendly area, but there are adult activities, too. The Blue Heron Restaurant & Tavern boasts live music several nights a week, along with an outdoor patio.

The community also hosts the Russian River Rodeo and Civil War reenactments each summer.

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