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.

Since 1988, music fans have celebrated traditional-plus music at MerleFest. The annual four-day festival commemorates Eddy Merle Watson, son of music legend Doc Watson, and raises money for scholarships and other educational needs of the college. The 2015 celebration weekend will kick off Thursday, April 23, on the campus of Wilkes Community College, which sits between Boone and Winston-Salem. Numerous artists perform across 13 stages, playing a unique mix of music based on traditional sounds of the Appalachian region, “plus whatever other styles we were in the mood to play,” Watson said before his death in 2012. The lineup includes artists such as Lee Ann Womack, The Marshall Tucker Band and North Carolina native group The Avett Brothers among other festival events like raffle drawings and Jammin’ at The Pickin’ Place. Buy tickets at the gate or at a discounted price online to join in this lively weekend.

If you were traveling through the mountains by train to Old Fort during the 19th century, you would pass Andrews Geyser at the Round Knob Hotel. Built in 1879, the geyser commemorated those who died while building the railway to Swannanoa and enticed tourists visiting the area for cooler summer weather to stay at the hotel. Although the hotel burned down in 1903, the geyser was so admired that it was rescued from the grounds in 1911 and moved to the opposite side of the creek, surrounded by the protected lands of the Pisgah National Forest. The redesigned attraction was renamed after Col. Alexander Boyd Andrews, an executive member of the Southern Railroad System, and is now part of a public park in Old Fort.

photo credit: Romantic Asheville

Transylvania County near Asheville is the cycling capital of the South. Between Pisgah National Forest and DuPont State Recreational Forest, there are hundreds of miles of mountain trails to be explored and an endless variety of road cycling options. World-class cyclists and BIKE Magazine have praised the area as being the best in the nation and “one of the top three places in the universe to ride.” Professional biker George Hincapie has been frequently spotted training on the county’s challenging back roads. Year-round events make getting involved easy, as the inviting community is proud to share its biking culture. Brevard welcomes all levels of cyclists, giving you everything you need, from equipment rentals to maps and advice, to make the most of your visit.

photo credit: Brevard/Transylvania County

Though the stories vary, the ending is concrete: Tom Dula (pronounced locally as Dooley), a Confederate soldier known to be a ladies’ man, was hanged for the murder of 18-year-old Laura Foster, a young woman he was involved with just before she died. The passed-down stories from the Wilkes County mystery reveal a love triangle and rumors of deceit, though what actually happened may never be known. A family member of one of Dula’s captors co-wrote the story into a folk song, which was made popular years later by The Kingston Trio. Tour the historical sites in the High Country to watch the legend come to life on stage and to experience pieces of the puzzle that led Dula to his fate.

In 1712, the Colonial Assembly passed an act to build a courthouse for assemblies and establish the town of Edenton on the North Carolina coast as a chief political, cultural and commercial center. The first courthouse was built in 1718, but its structure began to fail several years later. The second Chowan County Courthouse was funded by a group of commissioners including Joseph Hewes, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and was completed in 1767. It remains the oldest government building in continuous use in North Carolina. Its structure is considered to be one of the first Georgian-style public buildings, and its architectural design became a symbol of strength and justice. You can tour the Courthouse during the week or see it as part of a Historic Edenton tour along with the Cupola House, Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church and the Iredell House.

You’ll never visit another home like Körner’s Folly. Located between Greensboro and Winston-Salem, the unique property was built by designer, decorator and painter Jule Körner to showcase his work. After he married, he renovated the house multiple times to accommodate a growing family. Today, you’ll find 15 different fireplaces, ceilings ranging from 5.5 to 25 feet, pivoting windows, cubbyholes and trap doors throughout the space. It’s even rumored to be haunted. You can explore the home on your own or book an educational field trip with a Children’s Tour or Puppet Show. Körner’s Folly hosts several seasonal events, including National Puppetry Day, art festivals and a Victorian Christmas at Körner’s. Make sure you find out why Bob was the most unique member of the family, then stop by the gift shop to bring a Bob souvenir home with you.

photo credit: Körner’s Folly

Celebrate the culture and cuisine of eastern North Carolina at Kinston’s Chef and the Farmer. Owned by husband and wife duo Ben Knight and Vivian Howard, Vivian returned to her eastern North Carolina roots when the couple moved from Manhattan to operate a progressive eatery that follows a field-to-fork philosophy. Located across from the Lenoir County Farmer’s Market, Knight and Howard chose a 100-year-old mule stable as the perfect setting for their dining experience. Before you travel to visit the Chef and the Farmer’s 70-seat dining room, get a feel for the restaurant (and its chef) by watching the Peabody Award-winning PBS series A Chef’s Life, starring Howard and her Southern ingredients. With a menu that changes weekly based upon the availability of local produce, visitors can always try something new and get a true taste of North Carolina’s agricultural bounty.

Experience the high winds and shifting sands of the desert without ever leaving the North Carolina coast. Located at Nags Head on the Outer Banks, Jockey’s Ridge State Park features the tallest active sand dune system in the eastern United States. Comprised of three peaks, shifting winds constantly reshape the 420 acres of dunes making it a new experience for visitors each day. Those same winds make Jockey’s Ridge one of the best places to fly kites on the Outer Banks, and you’ll often see a horizon dotted with kites of all shapes and sizes. Kites aren’t the only things taking flight at Jockey’s Ridge; free permits are available for hang gliders ready to surf the sky. After a full day of flying, gliding, sand-boarding and picnicking, finish your visit by watching a stunner sunset from the top of the ridge.

The Durham Bulls ran the bases at Durham Athletic Park from 1926 to 1994, but the team gained true notoriety in 1988 with the release of box-office hit Bull Durham. Starring Kevin Costner and Susan Sarandon, the movie filmed at Durham Athletic Park about minor league glory days ranks fourth among ESPN’s “25 Greatest Sports Movies” and sits on the American Film Institute’s “100 Years…100 Laughs” list. While the Bulls now play on a different field across town, visitors can still catch an amateur baseball game and see the famous snorting bull – a parting memento from the Bull Durham crew.

Get up-close and personal with Blackbeard’s Queen Anne’s Revenge – no snorkel required. Five miles west of Atlantic Beach on the Crystal Coast, the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores is open daily and houses three shipwreck exhibits that take visitors under the sea without ever leaving dry land. Replicas of a German U-boat, a 251-foot freighter and Blackbeard’s flagship have all come to rest in displays that contain a combined 386,000 gallons of water. Off the coast, sunken vessels like these form the foundation for complex marine communities. Aquarium visitors can catch a glimpse of aquatic life including fearsome-looking sand tiger sharks, colorful queen angelfish, sea turtles and more as they swim around the encrusted anchors and replica cannons that make up their homes.

With a 60-foot trip down a natural rock waterslide to reach the seven-foot deep pool at the bottom, Sliding Rock isn’t your average swimming hole. From Memorial Day to Labor Day, visitors can enjoy the thrill of being whisked down the slide by 11,000 gallons of mountain stream water under the watchful eye of Forest Service lifeguards. Watching can be nearly as much fun as sliding, and you never know who you’ll spot from the two observation platforms – during the summer of 2014, Hollywood star Owen Wilson was seen sliding during a break from filming Loomis Fargo in the Asheville area. Located in Pisgah National Forest just north of Brevard, Sliding Rock is just one of 250 cascades waiting to be explored in Transylvania County.

photo credit: Transylvania County Tourism Development Authority

Since 1970, the Village Craftsmen has offered an extensive selection of handcrafted goods for Ocracoke Island visitors to take back as souvenirs and gifts for family and friends. In addition to the pottery, glass and baskets, Craftsmen patrons can take home a whale of a tale picked up during one of the nightly island ghost tours. Led by Philip Howard – who can trace his ancestry back eight generations to the quartermaster of legendary pirate Blackbeard – walking tours explore either the Creekside or Point area of Ocracoke Village. Both tours are peppered with tales of the infamous scourge of the seas who met his bitter (headless) end at Teach’s Hole, along with other island lore including the “phantom freighter” and the ghost who haunts the Ocracoke Harbor Inn. Each tour includes an introductory island history and is a mile and a half long, taking about 90 minutes.

Since 1907, Pinehurst No. 2 in Pinehurst has been the site of most every major golf championship. In 2014, No. 2 met a new milestone when it hosted the U.S. Open and U.S. Women’s Open Championships in back-to-back weeks – the first time in history both tournaments were played in the same year, on the same course. June 12 through 22 saw intense competition on golf course design legend Donald Ross’ masterpiece course – one he once called, “the fairest test of championship golf I have ever designed.” Martin Kaymer and Michelle Wie proved up to the test of the crowned, undulating greens and took home the respective 2014 championships.

photo credit: Pinehurst Resort

There are no sprinkles and no fluff at Carolina Beach Boardwalk staple Britt’s Donuts. Barefoot beachgoers have been lining up to get a no-frills, Britt’s glazed donut delicacy since 1939. The current owner, Bobby Nivens, was a longtime employee who served under the Britt family before buying the business in 1974. The ownership may have changed hands, but the top-secret donut-making process stayed the same (they say the secret is in the glaze). If you’re looking for a Britt’s donut, the family-run business is only open during the summer months. Lines can stretch down the boardwalk, but a five-star Yelp review confirms the donuts are worth the wait.

The Last of the Mohicans last graced the big screen in 1992, but you can relive the beauty of its dramatic scenery by visiting Chimney Rock State Park located just 45 minutes outside of Asheville. Based on the James Fenimore Cooper novel of the same name, the Academy Award-winning film paints a portrait of life during the French and Indian War in 1757. The final 17 minutes of the historical epic feature sweeping views of the towering cliffs and 404-foot waterfall that hundreds of visitors travel to Rutherford County to marvel at each year. Stand at the top of Hickory Nut Falls and walk the winding Skyline Trail where stars Daniel Day-Lewis and Madeleine Stowe filmed the intense final scenes. Can’t get enough of The Last of the Mohicans? Chimney Rock Park holds an annual summer screening of the film on a 35-foot screen at the base of the mountain.

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. In 2015, Kimpton Hotels and Restaurant will open a boutique hotel on the lower six floors and the remainder of the building will be developed as luxury apartments.

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.