Arriving at a rain-spattered quayside in Greenock, the sky already pitch black at five o'clock in the afternoon, I began to wonder if their schadenfreude was well-founded. But then I stepped on board the Hebridean Princess, and my spirits were lifted immediately.
This quirky little ship is a former Caledonian MacBrayne car ferry, which has been transformed into the cosiest of floating boutique hotels. The Princess accommodates just 50 lucky guests, with a sociable house party atmosphere on board that wins over all who experience it, with an incredibly high repeat guest rate. The social hub is the Tiree Lounge, where you can relax next to the brick fireplace with a hot toddy after a day exploring the magical coastlines and islands of Scotland.
Each cabin is named after one of the destinations the ship visits, and I stayed in the Isle of Raasay, a surprisingly spacious window cabin with a shower, supremely comfortable bed and a welcome bottle of whisky awaiting me. There are a handful of cabins with a balcony, and most have either a window or porthole. Hebridean is also a great choice for singles, with a third of the cabins specifically designed for solo travellers (though make sure you book early, as these are the first to sell out!).
Our cruise was a short sampler at the end of the season, setting out from Greenock towards the Isle of Bute. Here we disembarked at Rothesay and visited Mount Stuart House, a beautiful 19th century neo-Gothic mansion which is usually closed to the public at this time of year. This kind of exclusive access is typical of the Hebridean cruise experience, and we enjoyed a private tour of the house and archives, marvelling at the soaring arches of Italian marble, intricate stained glass windows and priceless artefacts, including a first edition folio of the plays of William Shakespeare.
Back on the ship we cruised into Loch Long, a stunning stretch of water flanked by forested mountains. The west coast of Scotland is a truly beautiful part of the world, and I think we sometimes take for granted the things we have right on our doorstep. Of course you can never guarantee good weather, but the scenery was just as beautiful as rain clouds drifted over the loch, and we even spotted a rainbow as we left Bute.
On our final night it was time to dress up for the farewell gala dinner, when the crew don their kilts and the evening's feasting is preceded by a stirring rendition of Robert Burns's 'Address to a Haggis'. Dining is focused on British classics, with local specialities such as hand-dived scallops, dressed salmon and the aforementioned haggis, complete with neeps and tatties. After dinner the party moves into the Tiree Lounge, where the entertainment consists of mingling with fellow guests and cringing at chief purser David's jokes.
Hebridean Princess is a totally unique ship, and you just won't find this experience anywhere else. Everything on board is included, so you really don't have to spend a penny more once you've paid for your cruise. In 2018 Hebridean Princess celebrates her 30th season, with a number of special cruises replicating favourite itineraries from the last three decades, and she will also be heading south to the Scilly Isles, the south coast of England, France and, for the first time, Belgium. There are also exciting plans afoot for an expanded river cruise programme in 2019 - watch this space!