Ayrshire and southwest Scotland are probably best known as "Burns Country," the region where Scotland's favorite bard, Robert Burns, spent most of his short life from 1759 to 1796. But in addition to the historic sites connected with the famous poet, the region is one of the best places to golf in all of Scotland, especially on its signature sandy links-style courses. Given its southwest exposure to the Gulf Stream influences, this is among the most temperate regions in Scotland. In addition to year-round golf, there is ample hiking and fishing, while the back roads are ideal for road cycling.

The royal burgh of Ayr was once the most popular resort on Scotland's west coast. On the reasonably picturesque Firth of Clyde, it's only some 56km (35 miles) southwest of Glasgow or about an hour by train or by car. For many years it was a busy market town - with a more important and indeed larger port than Glasgow's until the 18th century. Today, it offers visitors some 4km (2 1/2 miles) of beach, cruises, fishing, and golf - as well as the top horse racing in Scotland.

The town of Ayr is the logical place to begin any journey through Burns Country, and has a few associations with the bard itself.

Ayr's 15th-century Auld Brig (old bridge), according to the poet, "stood flood an' tide" and he wrote it would still be standing when the New Brig (built in his lifetime) was reduced to a "shapeless cairn (stone heap)". And Burns was correct: The so-called New Brig came down and was replaced in the 19th century. But the Auld Brig remains and is one of the oldest stone bridges in Scotland.

Not far away on the banks of the River Ayr is the Auld Kirk (old church), which dates to 1655, when it replaced the 12th-century Church of St. John, which was seized and dismantled by the invading forces of Oliver Cromwell. Robert Burns was baptized in the Auld Kirk. Its greatest curiosity, however, is a macabre series of "mort safes," metal grates which covered freshly filled graves to discourage grave-robbers or, more likely, body snatchers seeking cadavers for sale to medical colleges.

On the High Street, the Tam O'Shanter Inn is presumably the site of the tavern ("and ay the ale was growing better") where Tam leaves his drinking buddy Souter Johnnie and sets off riding his trusty gray mare Meg on that infamously stormy evening in Burn's epic and comic poem.

The Wallace Tower, also on High Street, rises some 34m (112 ft.). Constructed in 1828, it has a statue of medieval Scottish rebel William Wallace (celebrated by Mel Gibson's film Braveheart) by local sculptor James Thom. Legend holds that Wallace was imprisoned here and made a daring escape.