“We have two rules here: calories don’t count, and there is no inherent dignity.”
Leigh Melander, the “founding fomenter” of Spillian Estate, tells us this before heading to the bar area and returning with glasses of Pilsner ale from the Catskills Brewery. The group of us–strangers that, within the few hours we’d been together, already felt like friends–sat in the foyer, glowing in the bask of the hearth, sipping beer, and listening to Leigh talk about the house like an adoring mother. “There’s a different energy here, I think because of the woods,” she said. “It almost becomes an instrument when people are here.” She gestured her hands in pulsing motions, and gazing around the paneled wood walls, I could feel the reverberations.
I arrived only hours before from New York City, taking the two hour (give or take) Amtrak journey up through the Hudson Valley and into the snow-laden mountains of the Catskills. Myself and another guest, a photographer and travel writer, traveled up together. We met two of Spillian’s staff members, Tracie and Brian, at the Rhinecliff station. They drove us the hour up to Fleischmanns, New York, where Spillian Estate resides. Though it’s not far off the beaten path, as soon as we arrived, I was hundreds of miles away from the world. And I loved it.
Spillian, now owned and operated by Leigh and her husband, Mark Somerfield, is a 19th century mansion, set on thirty-three acres of land, once serving as the Fleischmann family summer home. Between walking trails, a meadow, an airy, rustic interior, and views of the mountains, this is a place strictly belonging to imagination. It is a venue that hosts corporate events and weddings, but Leigh and Mark have set their sights on weekend retreats that reflect the enchanting location and history of the home. The program is still in formation, with a number of excitingly themed weekends popping up, like murder mysteries.
The eight bedrooms are informed by the various things that intrigued Victorians, like Jules Verne and Japanese philosophies.
I came to Spillian to experience a Fire and Ice weekend, set against the backdrop of an early January winter and centered by the roaring fireplace and stories inside. The timing could not have been better. I was about to celebrate my six-month anniversary in New York, still unemployed, feeling like my relentless search was futile, wondering if this city was the place for me. If, maybe, I was dreaming wrong. For the first time in my conscious life, I felt directionless, and it was scary. Running away to the mountains is my general when in doubt motto, and when I learned Spillian’s own rules, I abided dutifully.
On the first night, we gathered in the dining room for fondue.
Along with Leigh, there was Will, our weekend adventure guide and co-founder of Upstate Adventure Guides; Chris and Dana, fellows of Spillian and close friends of Leigh and Mark; and Scott, Emily, and myself, all somehow connected by mutual contacts or sheer love for the outdoors. As a generally reserved person, seclusion with people I don’t know is not something I ever pegged myself for craving or enjoying as I did so immediately. They were all as welcoming as the hearth itself, and the 12-person dining table was melodious as we chatted about podcasts, the music industry, and poetry written about the Catskills.
Chef Christian Van Etten, a Catskills native, spins magic out of local produce. We learned where every ingredient came from and reveled in Christian’s culinary mastery with them. His fondues of gruyere, cheddar, and swiss, and chocolate, nutmeg, cinnamon, and cardamom were warmth personified. Eventually, we were all returning to the head of the table to dunk bits of bread into the chocolate.
Here, there was no concern of time or one-plate-of-food politeness; there was only room for a sparkling sense of possibility, of wandering to the place where dreams and childhood live in immortality, and of turning chocolate fondue into digestif cups of mochas around the table.
After dinner, Leigh pulled out wishing notes, squares of purple tissue paper to write wishes on.
Closing our eyes, we crumpled the paper between our fingers, unfurled, and wrapped like a coil around one finger. Then we took them outside, trying to precariously balance the cylinders on a small table. We all stood around laughing, trying to block the wind from tipping them over. When they were steady, one by one we lit the papers and watched as they soared over us on the deck, into the black night sky, and fizz like a shooting star before disappearing into the sweet mountain air, where mystical things happen.
That night, we listened to ghost stories surrounding Spillian, and the lure of the Catskills. Leigh mentioned the brutality of winter up there and its many dangers, yet how it still manages to weaken your knees in its majesty. There is a respect for the land that is not lost on its residents.
As I curled up under red blankets in the Lotus Room, I heard the occasional car whir by, but it was nothing that disturbed the stillness. It was liberating to lie between the mountains and stars and feel nothing between you — only a whistling winter breeze.
Clouds rolled in and out, playing hide and seek with the mountains.
A sleepy Saturday mentality followed as I joined the group downstairs to read by the fire before breakfast: quiche, fruit, granola, yogurt, and lots of bacon and coffee. As the rain lifted outside, we stuffed ourselves into energized oblivion for a hike up to the fire tower on the Balsam Lake Mountain trail.
Will drove us through Fleischmanns, the local radio station playing a string of Irish jigs and reels and adding to this ever-present sense of folklore that surrounds the area. Robber barons, fur traders, and Native Americans (who didn’t want to live here because the Spirit of Life existed in this space) continue to capture imagination. Now, it’s a haven for creatives and artists, and it’s easy to see why.
The hike started out okay, and within the first hour we had to strap spikes over our shoes to climb through the ice. It was a satisfying power to yield, and and even more satisfying crunch that came with every step up. This was the ice portion of the weekend, exposing ourselves to the harsh elements of winter. We tramped along and paused for breath, water, and to ogle at the massive icicles that had formed on boulders and trees. The higher we climbed, the more months of worry and doubt I shed.
At the fire tower, I reflected on what Will said earlier. We would be transported through various types of forestry, as if we were passing through multiple worlds. He pointed out different types of moss and trees. He showed us where birds like woodpeckers create tennis ball-sized holes in dead bark, and we sampled the bristles of a spruce tree. We reached the top of the fire tower, and ate roasted red pepper and tomato soup in the area where the former fire marshall and his daughter shared many fond memories at the cabin.
We had ascended into otherworldly territory. The fog didn’t lift, leaving a beautiful tinge to the world as the trees below us faded into the mist.
Do you know how to cure a shivering, hike-worn body? Liquor. We took a pit stop at the Union Grove Distillery to sample fir gin and maple spirits, equal parts sharp and warm. The maple spirit is rum-like, but can’t be categorized as such because it doesn’t have cane sugar. The cold had entered my bones, not easily shaken away, but the spirits lit a spark in them.
We returned to Spillian around 4 PM, and immediately I raced for the gorgeous clawfoot bathtub and soaked for a while, listening to acoustic covers. The mountains, in full view now, were fading into the sleepy blue of twilight. I made a cup of English Breakfast tea downstairs to continue to de-thawing process and read. There was something so transporting about this moment, reading or exploring the extensive games and books collection, talking here and there with everyone. Eventually, mugs were swapped with glasses of beer, and Will showed us how to make a fire with a quarter of a match and gunpowder. It was a trick begun in war, still helpful if necessary.
In the Catskills, it seems anything is tangible, if only one thinks of it.
Leigh reckoned we roast chestnuts, going to grab some and putting them in her chestnut roaster by the fireplace. They sat over the flames as Leigh and Mark’s friends arrived.
In the sort of charmed fantasy of a multi-course dinner party, we were introduced to everyone, all of whom are deeply involved in the preservation of or passion for the Catskills – like Leigh’s friend Pam, a member of the Catskills Adventure Board who founded a number of hiking trails. She attested her encouragement to Leigh and other close friends who told her to just do it, and it happened. Like the mountains, community creates its own sense of relief.
A special cocktail for the evening included Prohibition bourbon, maple spirits, a citrus peel, and fire blasted. If you thought mixology was cool, the fire blasting part was pure badassery. We plucked chestnuts out of their shells and sipped the literally complementary drinks over the sounds of smooth jazz and laughter.
When dinner was served, we were welcomed to the dining table with fire and ice lollipops. The sweet, chilled pop gave way to a cayenne pepper middle, a spicy palate cleanser. Dishes to follow were a salad with leeks, cranberries, and locally-made goat cheese (I think my favorite dish of the night); tender venison; freshly caught trout with a dill and cucumber sauce; plumes of potatoes baked “Catskill” because they looked like mountains; and homemade soft-serve ice cream with berries and the fondue chocolate from the previous night.
The exchange of travel stories, adventure in the neighborhood, and animal chaos seemed the perfect way to spend the evening.
Guests slowly filtered out, and a few of us moved to the foyer. Leigh left for the night, but not without reminding us where the coffee, tea, and bar were. For the next couple of hours we topped off our glasses with beer, shoes now kicked off.
On our last morning, Leigh invited us to take yoga by the fire. We helped her move furniture and rolled out bright yoga mats to sit on. The landscape beyond us was her canvas for meditation, sharing in myths about frost ogres and fire to create the earth. At one point, all of us lying down with heavily closed eyes, Leigh asked us to look outside. Sure enough, fat, fluffy flakes were falling through the sky. For a moment (it only lasted that long), I was transfixed by the way we were suddenly in a snow globe, the blanket of trees and darkening morning sky the exposition of a rich winter novel.
Leigh asked us to think about our energy and the house’s energy as one. And in my sedated state, I felt them move together. Their particles danced and hummed around me, like fairies twirling in the air.
After sitting down for brunch with all the fixings–pancakes, french toast, shakshuka, fruit, bacon–I walked the grounds a bit, making fresh footprints in the snow and indulging one last time in all of the beauty. Like all fairy tales, this one had to come to an end, but I knew it wouldn’t end immediately. The Catskills would still exist in my soul, every fiber of it weaving into my soul. Whenever I’m stressed or overwhelmed, I think about Spillian and my world shifts back to its balance.
A retreat at Spillian doesn’t involve massages or cleanses. Even better: nature, and a spellbinding history.
To learn more about Spillian and how to sign up for retreats, visit their site here.