Part of why I love traveling is the lessons you bring back with you after a journey, from the cultures you come to understand to natural scenes that leave you in awe, and a recent stay at the 1880s Gilded Age mansion of Spillian did just that.
Located in the Catskills, the mansion serves as an event and retreat center, but it is so much more than that, with its name giving visitors the first hint of what they can expect when entering the space.
Spillian means to play or revel, a name that co-owner Leigh Melander gave to the space she has created as a location where visitors can come to dive deep into imagination and storytelling, through conversation and through connection to the magnificent scenery of the area.
Travelers can feel the creative energy that resounds as soon as they make their way to the driveway of the mansion, a long and winding drive up the hill that Melander and her husband Mark Somerfield purposefully left unpaved to make it feel as though you’re leaving the 21st century at the bottom of the hill as you make your way up to the 33-acre space.
I felt instantly taken back in time upon opening the doors of the home in the midst of winter. The entire interior is paneled in clear pine, while hand painted oil paintings depict outdoor scenes throughout the seasons right on the wood.
A lovely legend has it that the members of the family residing in the home in its early days had the painting made for their daughter who couldn’t spend much time outside, bringing the outdoors to her inside.
The Fleischmann yeast family built the grand retreat in the early 1880s, with the space serving as a gathering place for creatives from its early days, from the family themselves who were the first to introduce yeast commercially in the U.S. to the range of opera singers, designers, cultural, and political leaders they hosted.
This energy is one Melander felt as soon as she walked into the space, and one that her and her husband have preserved beautifully today, providing customized experiences to guests to make each stay one-of-a-kind.
“Our starting point is to ask, ‘What are you dreaming of and how can we make that happen or bring it to life?” Melander told Travel + Leisure. “It’s labor intensive, but extremely fun because that means every part of the experience is different.”
Spillian hosts a range of events throughout the year that focus on a theme, ranging from a Haggis celebration I attended featuring freshly-made Haggis, playful activities like Scottish poetry sessions and Scottish accent lessons to foraging trips and fly-fishing excursions.
Spillian's inventive chef often uses invasive items foraged like garlic mustard and Japanese knotweed to create everything from pesto and sorbets to jellies, while visitors can also taste local products like Old Fashioned cocktails made with pine syrup from the surrounding trees.
Spillian also serves as a full-rental space for weddings, corporate retreats, and family and friend gatherings, hosting 8 bedrooms and enough accommodation for 20 people.
Each of the bedrooms features a different theme, from a Jules Verne room with a brass telescope to the Scheherazade room with Moroccan light fixtures and antique oriental carpets hung over the bed.
Every piece has its own story, from the 1800s grand bed located in the Camelot room that Melander scoured from a former Air Force Pilot, to the range of silver plate serving dishes from the 1940s belonging to her family.
“The idea is that there are layers of treasures people would bring to a space like this if a family had owned it," Melander said. "You can feel all of the hands that have touched it, and there’s something kind of wonderful about that.”
Though the space’s features and furnishings don’t stick to a particular time period, the combination of spectacular mountain scenery set against a lengthy dining table where folks of all parts of life can come together and converse, make visitors feel as though they’ve gone back to simpler times.
And that truly is the magic of Spillian, a space in today’s busy world where visitors can not only get a chance to relax and unplug, but to spark their own creativity through stimulating conversation with individuals from all over the world.
For this reason, visitors won't find any televisions in the space, and are rather invited to explore their own interests in the area or take part in activities that range from spirit and food tastings to guided hikes, distillery tours, and music celebrations.
The best part is, nature is never too far away, from the mesmerizing views of lush greenery and deer that often bring their fawns to the area seen from the gazebo, to the forest scenery surrounding its outdoor space.
Perhaps it was reflecting on that scenery while thinking about the artistic history of the area, from the Hudson River School painters to the writers and artists in Woodstock, or chatting with everyone from teachers to poets inside that made me reflect on my own life and creative endeavors, but either way, Melander's goal of having visitors leave with a sense of imagination they can take into their own lives definitely worked.
And that might be the greatest souvenir of all.