IRVINE, twelve miles north of Ayr, was once the principal port for trade between Glasgow and Ireland, and later for coal from Kilmarnock, its halcyon days recalled in the enjoyable Scottish Maritime Museum (April– Oct daily 10am–5pm; Web: www.scottishmaritimemuseum.org ; £3), which is spread across several locations around the town's beautifully restored old harbour. The best place to start is in the late nineteenth-century LinthouseEngine Shop, on Harbour Road, a hangar-like building housing everything from old sailing dinghies and canoes to giant ship's turbines. Free guided tours set off regularly for the nearby Shipyard Worker's Tenement Flat, which has been restored to something like its appearance in 1910, when a family of six to eight would have occupied its two rooms and scullery (and rented one of them out to a lodger). Moored at the pontoons on Harbour Street is an assortment of craft, which you can board, including a tug, a trawler, a "puffer" boat and the oldest seagoing steam yacht in the country.
Arriving at Irvine's adjacent train or bus stations, you'll find yourself exactly halfway between the harbour, to the west, and the Riverfront shopping complex and old town, to the east. Kilwinning Road, heading north out of Irvine, has several inexpensive B&Bs such as Laurelbank Guesthouse, at no. 3 (Tel:01294/277153, firstname.lastname@example.org; Price: 41-50); should you wish to pamper yourself a bit more, head for Annfield House, 6 Castle St (Tel:01294/278903, Web: www.annfieldhousehotel.co.uk ; Price: 71-90), a big Victorian mansion overlooking the river at the end of Sandgate, that has spacious bedrooms.