Project 543 tells the story of unique spots across North Carolina we hope will become some of your favorite places. Why 543? Because that's the number of miles from Manteo, on the coast, to Murphy, in the mountains, and is traditionally considered to be the width of our state. The entries in this project are in no particular order, and we'll add to them each week. Check in often to find inspiration for your next trip, or start planning today at VisitNC.com.

Have you ever wondered what happened to that button you lost in the wash? Maybe it ended up in Mary Eva Blount Way’s collection of over 30,000 buttons. Affectionately known as Miss Eva, the Beaufort County native began her collection with a humble box of buttons given to her by her mother-in-law. As time passed, friends and neighbors contributed trinkets and treasures until Miss Eva’s collection grew too large for her family barn. After her death in 1962, citizens of the coastal town of Belhaven purchased her collection to create Belhaven Memorial Museum and allow visitors to step back in time. Today, you can view more than 30,000 buttons from around the world, pickled tumors given to Miss Eva by the town doctor, a flea bride and groom and more from her world on the second floor of historic Belhaven Town Hall.

Standing at the entrance to the Cape Fear River for almost 200 years, Old Baldy has been used to safely guide maritime soldiers, as a Coast Guard radio beacon in World War II and now is a destination for Brunswick Islands visitors. Built in 1817, the 110-foot body of the lighthouse is made of soft red bricks and covered with stucco. While originally a gleaming white, different versions of stucco have been used in repairs during the years to create the patchwork surface you see today. Old Baldy was kept as an active light station until 1935 and was officially relit in 1988, although it no longer serves as an official navigational aid. Today, visitors can view Bald Head Island from six windows as they climb the 108 steps leading to the ladder that marks the final ascent to the lantern room. Located next to Old Baldy, the Keeper’s Cottage museum offers more information about the lighthouse, as well as pirates, surfmen of the United States Lifesaving Service and other island history.

When Mandara Spa created a spa in the heart of the ancestral home of the Cherokee in the mountains of North Carolina, it took elements and inspiration from the Cherokee to create a one-of-a-kind fusion between its Balinese treatments and traditional native herbs and healing methods. In partnership with the Eastern Band of Cherokee, the Mandara Spa is now part of the Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort in the town of Cherokee on the North Carolina side of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This 18,000-square-foot spa features unique face and body treatments that infuse herbs from the Native American medicinal traditions to highlight and celebrate the native heritage of the resort. Exclusive services at Cherokee include the Lavender Healing Repair Facial and the Juniper Berry and Algae Detox. Lavender and Juniper were key healing herbs used in Native American ceremonies to soothe and restore as well as to take away negative energy and purify the environment. Couples also can share the experience through the Sacred Feather Ritual for Two, which includes a bathing ritual in a large hydrotherapy bath. These combinations of Native American culture and Mandara’s time-honored, Balinese-inspired treatments bring guests the best in therapeutic luxury.

Winston-Salem is best known for the Moravian culture on display in its historic Old Salem community. But visitors passing through downtown often look at one of the city’s skyscrapers and have a feeling they’ve seen it somewhere before. Winston-Salem’s Reynolds Building was the model for the Empire State Building, one of the world’s most iconic skyscrapers. The connection is so strong that executives from the Empire State Building sent the Reynolds Building a thank-you card on its 50th birthday. The Reynolds Building was constructed in 1929 by Shreve and Lamb, who would design the Empire State Building a few years later based on the same plans. The iconic shape of the two buildings is the same, though the Empire State Building has 102 floors whereas the Reynolds Building has 22. For nearly a century, the Reynolds Building was the home office for the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. The Reynolds Building was named “Building of the Year” by the National Association of Architects, won the 1984 Art Deco Society of New York award for best restoration and was the tallest building in the South for 35 years. The building’s future is undecided and it may take on a new role as a luxury hotel.

Max Woody is a sixth generation chair maker and a living tribute to North Carolina’s rich furniture-making heritage. Born and raised in McDowell County, Max also inherited a love for the music of his home, the Appalachian Mountains, and has found a way to share both of these arts with visitors. You can check out his old-fashioned chair shop during the day, and then head across the street to experience Woody’s Original Mountain Music Friday nights. In his shop, Max produces custom-made chairs – and though he’s never run a paid advertisement, he has a waiting list that stretches about four years. He welcomes visitors to come in and hear a story or two, even if they can’t wait that long to purchase a chair. His chairs are handmade in styles and designs that have been passed down through his family. Friday evenings, Max can often be found working on a different piece of wood – as a part-time fiddler. His Mountain Music jams are free to the public and run from 7 p.m. until everyone gets tired.

As host to the 2014 U.S. Open and U.S. Women’s Open Championships, North Carolina is often associated with golf’s biggest game – but it’s also home to the sport’s smallest. Putt-Putt golf was created in Fayetteville in 1954 when businessman Don Clayton opened the first course. Putt-Putt is a specific type of miniature golf that Clayton patented to focus on putting skills rather than gimmicks such as windmills and scenery. Putt-Putt became immensely popular, and though the corporation remained in North Carolina, more than 200 courses now exist throughout the nation. Clayton’s original course no longer exists, but nearby Hope Mills is now home to the prototype Putt-Putt Fun Center featuring batting cages, electric go-carts, indoor bumper cars, games and 36 holes of Putt-Putt. North Carolina also was the birthplace of the nation’s first miniature golf course, built in 1919 in the Village of Pinehurst. Pinehurst Resort now offers a miniature golf course called Thistle Dhu that pays homage to the original. Covering 15,000 square feet of green, Thistle Dhu features 18 holes of mind-bending putts created to challenge and entertain everyone from the youngest family member to the most experienced golfer. Play is free to Pinehurst Resort guests.

Asheville may have only 75,000 residents, but with more craft breweries per capita than any other city in the nation, it’s a big town when it comes to beer. Home to more than a dozen craft beer makers, Asheville reigned as Beer City USA from 2009 to 2012. The city has five beer festivals – including the Best Firkin Beer Festival – and even boasts a Brews Cruise, which takes guests on guided tours of the city’s microbreweries. Brewing took root in the city in 2004 when Highland Brewing Company opened its doors. Others soon followed and now beer has gone beyond being just a drink. Beer lovers can find local beers incorporated into everything from condiments to ice cream to dog biscuits for man’s best friend. The region has even attracted larger beer makers such as Sierra Nevada, New Belgium and Oskar Blues, which are setting up East Coast operations in western North Carolina. But North Carolina’s craft beer scene isn’t just limited to the mountains: You can savor the taste of local beers at more than 100 breweries statewide.

Lexington is so barbecue crazed it has some 19 barbecue restaurants in a town of less than 19,000 people, giving it the most per capita of any city in the world. The city has a well-established spot on the Historic Barbecue Trail created by the North Carolina Barbecue Society, and is often called the Barbecue Capital of the World. The town also is home to North Carolina’s largest barbecue celebration, known simply as The Barbecue Festival. Held in late October, the event draws more than 100,000 people to Lexington’s Main Street for food and fun. Lexington and Davidson County declare October as Barbecue Month, so events are held throughout the weeks leading up to the festival. Lexington is so popular for barbecue, it’s the namesake for the style of cooking used in the entire western part of North Carolina. Lexington-style means cooking only the pork shoulder (in other parts of the state, the entire pig is cooked), which is served finely chopped, coarsely chopped or sliced, but definitely not pulled. The pork often has a crunchy crust called “outside” or “brown.” Lexington also is known for barbecue slaw, which is red and made with ketchup and vinegar. Make sure to speak up if you want it on the side – otherwise it’s served on all sandwiches.

The Village of Portsmouth was once one of the most thriving communities on North Carolina’s Crystal Coast but it was destroyed by a hurricane that didn’t land anywhere near the island. Portsmouth’s buildings, sandy streets and docks appear to remain ready to welcome ships passing through Ocracoke Inlet today, but all of its residents deserted long ago. The town was victim to the natural forces that shape North Carolina’s barrier islands, known as banks. Portsmouth was a “lightering” town, providing warehouses and transfers for goods that deep-draft ships could not carry through the shallow inlet, which was the best ocean passageway to the interior of North Carolina. Portsmouth was doomed by a hurricane, but not by damage from the storm itself. The hurricane of 1846 opened up a better passage through the Outer Banks near Hatteras Island and shipping transferred to the new channel. The growth of railroads, the Civil War and additional hurricanes dealt the final blows until the last remaining residents left in 1971. Portsmouth Island is now part of the Cape Lookout National Seashore. The 250-acre historic district is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and preserved to allow visitors to step back in time to experience the bones of a typical Outer Banks village of the last century. Several of the town’s buildings contain exhibits, and guided walking tours are available seasonally. Ferry service is offered from neighboring Ocracoke Island to tour the structures, and visitors can also bring their own boats to enjoy the island’s desolate beach as part of a vacation to the North Carolina coast. A Portsmouth Homecoming takes place every other year in the even-numbered years.

The color most frequently associated with North Carolina’s mountains is blue – as in Blue Ridge. But in the Ashe County community of West Jefferson, the color residents most identify with is yellow – as in cheese. West Jefferson is home to Ashe County Cheese, the South’s oldest cheese factory. In 1930, the Kraft Company consolidated several small community cheese plants in the Blue Ridge Mountains to form Ashe County Cheese. Today the factory produces an average of 30,000 pounds of cheese each week and is operated by Newburg Corners Cheese Inc. and its Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker Tom Torkelson. The milk used comes from dairy farms within 70 miles and is stored in three tanks shaped and painted to look like cows. Visitors can take a free look at the operations from a viewing room open year-round, though the cheese-making schedule varies each week.  Ashe County Cheese sells more than 20 varieties of original Ashe County cheese as well as its own butter, homemade fudge and fresh cheese curd.

When visitors enjoy the “new local Southern cuisine’’ at King’s Kitchen in Charlotte, those in need get fed as well. Noble Restaurants, which manages King’s, donates 100 percent of the profits from sales at King’s Kitchen to feed the hungry. When people dine at King’s, they enjoy a fantastic North Carolina dining experience and the entire community thrives. King’s also partners with area ministries to provide jobs for those in need of a new beginning. Patrons feel good about what they’re doing and even better about what they’re eating. King’s dishes feature premium local and organic produce along with favorites such as Aunt Beaut’s Pan Fried Chicken. These Southern favorites are prepared in a healthy, updated way using natural meats and organic, local vegetables. King’s also features an onsite bakery, offering breads and desserts as well as sandwiches and breakfast items on weekdays.

The Black River in eastern North Carolina is one of the few waterways left that hasn’t been cut by man. Nestled deep in this pristine river is Three Sisters Swamp, home to hundreds of ancient bald cypress trees, many more than 1,000 years old. A tree called Methuselah, or BLK69 by its official name, dates back to at least 364 AD and has been verified to be the oldest tree in eastern America. Scientists believe it isn’t even the oldest tree in Three Sisters, it’s just one of the few that has a solid core that allows for accurate age analysis. The trees here are so old that many are flat-topped from storms and hollow from rot. They have survived because of the undisturbed nature of the river system and the pristine water conditions. The Black River has been designated as Outstanding Resource Waters by the North Carolina Division of Water Quality, and the Nature Conservancy has been protecting important tracts along the Black River since the ancient trees were discovered some two decades ago. The river flows nearly 70 miles through Sampson, Pender and Bladen counties before emptying into the Cape Fear River near Wilmington. The area is remote and water levels provide a challenge for kayakers. Guided trips are offered by Watersmyth Kayaking based in Wilmington and also through Sampson County.

The Raffaldini family has been celebrating special events with homemade wine for nearly 700 years, and for the past 10 years it has shared that centuries-old experience as one of North Carolina’s wineries. Raffaldini is an award-winning estate winery nestled on a hillside location in the scenic Blue Ridge Mountains near Ronda in Wilkes County. The family dates back to 1348 in Italy, but in 2000 decided to develop its wine in the new world and chose North Carolina’s Yadkin Valley, known for its fertile soil and two American Viticultural Areas (AVAs). Seeking to share their sense of family and place, the Raffaldinis found the perfect location in North Carolina’s mountains that reminded them of their homeland. They created a vineyard with a Tuscan-style villa and tasting room. Now visitors can enjoy an Italian experience at the winery, vineyard and tasting room, which hosts hundreds of weddings and events each year. But most importantly, visitors can get a taste of the Old World in the flavor of Raffaldini’s wines.

Visitors to Smithfield can celebrate the legacy of Hollywood golden age film star Ava Gardner in the hometown museum dedicated to her life. Part of North Carolina’s rich film legacy, Gardner appeared in more than 50 movies including Night of the Iguana, The Killers and Show Boat, and was married to Frank Sinatra and Mickey Rooney spanning a 50-year career as a leading Hollywood actress. She was born and raised in Johnston County, a rural area of central North Carolina, until New York and Hollywood called her to fame. The museum tells the story of her life with an extensive collection of memorabilia, and each item has a personal connection to Ava or her family. More than 20,000 pieces of memorabilia are in the collection, including costumes like the dress from The Great Sinner (which showcases her 18-inch waist), movie posters and awards. The museum also showcases a mix of personal items, including a gold-plated derringer pistol given to her by John Huston to diffuse tension between Richard Burton and Liz Taylor during the filming of Night of the Iguana, and an engraved watch she gave to Sinatra.

North Carolina is home to several oversized attractions, but none is as functional as the World’s Largest Frying Pan. Located in the Duplin County community of Rose Hill, the World’s Largest “Functional” Frying Pan is located in the town square and is used primarily for community fundraising events. It weighs two tons, is 15 feet in diameter and holds 200 gallons of cooking oil. It can hold 365 whole chickens and pitchforks are used as kitchen utensils for it. The pan was built in 1963 by the Ramsey Feed Company as a tribute to the area’s poultry industry. Rose Hill also is home to Duplin Winery, the oldest and largest winery in the South. The frying pan was the most famous site in town until the motion picture Iron Man 3 filmed several scenes in the town, including knocking down the city’s water tower. It’s now a stop on the Iron Man 3 experience itinerary.

The Qualla Boundary, which stretches across Swain and Haywood counties, is the ancestral home of the Cherokee containing its mother town, the Museum of the Cherokee Indian and several other attractions that showcase this ancient culture. The 57,000-acre Qualla Boundary is often referred to as the Cherokee Indian Reservation. Home to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, it offers a wealth of experiences for visitors who want to learn about the Cherokee. Popular attractions include the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, Oconaluftee Indian Village (a re-creation of a 1750s Cherokee village), the outdoor drama Unto These Hills, and the Qualla Arts & Crafts Mutual. Visitors can learn about the Cherokee culture from its beginnings, through the Trail of Tears to present day. Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort also is a popular attraction and recently completed a $633 million expansion.

The Barker House in Edenton celebrates what was the earliest organized women’s political action in American history. On Oct. 25, 1774, 51 women in Edenton formed an alliance wholeheartedly supporting the American cause against “taxation without representation.” Known as the Edenton Tea Party, the protest was met with surprise and ridicule in England, but is viewed as an important step in our nation’s path to independence. The Barker House was home to Penelope Barker, the leader of the movement. It is now home to the Edenton Historical Commission and is open for daily tours highlighting period furniture and featuring temporary history exhibits. Edenton celebrates its 300th anniversary in 2013 and served as the first Colonial Capital of North Carolina. The town survived the both the Revolutionary and Civil wars largely intact, allowing visitors today to explore three National Historic Landmarks, a state historic site and architectural styles spanning some 250 years. Edenton was named one of America’s Prettiest Towns and the Historic Edenton Visitor Center provides guided walking and trolley tours Tuesday through Saturday.

photo credit: Bill Russ | VisitNC.com

With four national forests, three mountain ranges, 252 miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway, nearly 100 miles of the Appalachian Trail and more than half of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina’s mountain scenery is as endless as it is inspirational. From unusual sights to Eastern America’s highest peaks and deepest gorges, the state offers many amazing views. Shadow of the Bear is one of the most unusual mountain vistas anywhere. It only appears for two weeks in late October in a space near the town of Cashiers in Jackson County. Visitors should be aware that the best place to see the Shadow of the Bear is on a busy highway that cannot accommodate a large amount of viewers. The bear also appears in mid-February but only for a brief time. Don’t worry if you miss it, because it is just one of thousands of scenic overlooks that await along the roads less traveled in North Carolina.

Visitors to the North Carolina History Center at Tryon Palace in New Bern can be transported back in time by a mysterious device located in the Pepsi Family Center. Guests enter through a portal that features spinning lights, sounds, images and news transcripts that follow their journey back to experience the area as it was in 1835. This virtual trip leads to a section of the museum where hands-on experiences combine with touch-screen exhibits that allow parents and children to work as a team to sail a ship, cook in a colonial kitchen, produce a 19th-century newspaper or distill turpentine and produce naval stores. The North Carolina History Center is a 60,000-square-foot facility that uses interactive technology, living history programs and rotating exhibitions to keep the experience fresh and exciting with each visit. Tryon Palace also offers a handheld History Navigator that offers contextual video, audio and images of history, landscape and architectural resources to make the trip come alive.

photo credit: Tryon Palace

The groundhog Punxsutawney Phil’s shadow may determine a few additional weeks of winter, but that’s nothing compared to the woolly worms in Western North Carolina. For years, locals have been using these small caterpillars to forecast the severity of the entire winter, and they say the woolly worms have been right 85 percent of the time. One of many great fall experiences in North Carolina is racing a woolly worm at the annual Woolly Worm Festival. Everyone is eligible to enter the race and hundreds of visitors come to Banner Elk the third weekend in October take a chance at winning $1,000 and having the honor of their own woolly worm being chosen as the official forecaster for the region. Participants catch their own woolly worm and have it race up a string. The fastest woolly worm is named the official forecaster. Woolly worms, which are actually the larva of the Isabella tigermoth, have 13 segments to their bodies, which correspond with the traditional 13 weeks of winter. If the brown bands on the woolly worm are thin, it indicates a cold winter ahead, and if they are wide it means winter will be mild. The Woolly Worm Festival draws nearly 20,000 people and includes nearly 150 food and craft vendors. It’s one of several unique and unusual attractions in North Carolina.