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.

It all started in 1975. Ayden resident Mrs. Lois Theuring wrote a letter to the Ayden-NewsLeader suggesting the town host a festival. A committee was formed and the townspeople were polled, choosing the Ayden Collard Festival as the name for the event first held Sept. 13, 1975. Over 30 years later, you can still attend the annual celebration that includes a parade, a pageant, rides and attractions, a road race and of course, cooking and eating collard greens. The four-day event – happening this year Sept. 10-13 – has been estimated to draw 15,000 visitors to join in the wholesome, healthy fun.

The courageous and dedicated men who entered Montford Point in the 1940s graduated to become the Marines that brought the U.S. Marine Corps into a new era. Black recruits were sent to Jacksonville, a city about 60 miles northeast of Wilmington, to complete a segregated basic training at Montford Point Base. The Montford Point Marines Association has since launched chapters across the nation and in Japan to celebrate their legacy, and established a museum at Camp Johnson to preserve and share their stories. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, you can visit the Montford Point Museum to immerse yourselves in photos, documents and artifacts that capture the unique history of these African-American Marines from 1942 to 1949. The museum’s mission is to display memories of the past and show how those experiences have influenced the Marines today.

Everyone can join in the fun on the rapids of the Tuckaseegee River. From May to September, choose to paddle and steer or simply float your way from Sylva, past Western Carolina University, into the Tuckaseegee community on a guided raft trip with the whole family. The Class II rapids will keep you moving while also giving you time to slow down in calmer waters. If you travel Harrison Ford’s Ledge you can catch a glimpse of the bus and train used in the wreck scene from The Fugitive. A stop at the swimming hole is the perfect time to hop in and cool off in the 70-degree water.

Daniel Boone, who is generally associated with the West, actually spent a significant number of years in North Carolina. Today, Boone’s story is a mixture of fact and fiction thanks to movies, television and even gossip while he was still alive. His parents, Squire and Sarah Boone, moved from Pennsylvania to Davie County. There, Boone married his wife, Rebecca, when they were just 22 and 17. The couple later moved up the Yadkin River to Wilkes County before Boone continued to write his legendary life story as a frontiersman in the development of Virginia, Kentucky and the Trans-Appalachian West. A trip along the Daniel Boone Heritage Trail will take you on a journey in the footsteps of America’s pioneer hero, traveling the lands he explored and experiencing the life he lived along the way. The trail also visits Joppa Cemetery in Mocksville, one of the oldest and most historic graveyards in Davie County, where the graves of Squire and Sarah Boone as well as Israel, one of Boone’s brothers, stand to this day.

Enjoy a luxurious experience in the heart of Hot Springs at a 100-acre resort and spa. People have been visiting Hot Springs since Native Americans first soaked in the area’s 100-plus degree mineral water nearly 5,000 years ago. The crystal clear, carbonated waters are famous for their legendary healing powers. Soak in world-famous natural hot mineral water at Hot Springs Resort and Spa, located in the mountains of Western North Carolina, just 40 minutes north of Asheville. The resort is rich in history and also features modern jacuzzi-style hot tubs with a continuous flow of spring water. Relax and unwind with a massage from one of the spa’s certified massage therapists. Stay in any of the luxury suites or cabins, or find peace in nature at a tent or RV site in the Hot Springs Campground.

photo credit: Hot Springs Resort and Spa

Twice each year, more than 75,000 retail home furnishings professionals from over 100 countries head to High Point to shop the largest furnishings industry trade show in the world. The High Point Market is closed to the public, but the High Point Convention and Visitors Bureau offers visitors exclusive access to the industry’s latest trends and product designs with its Interior Design Services program. You can shop local retail stores and select showrooms with an interior designer, or let the designer shop and coordinate shipping for you. Whether you need help pulling together a total look or you’re searching for a special piece of furniture, High Point’s team of preferred interior designers are here to help. Of course, if you’d prefer to browse by yourself, the area is home to 40 retail stores and showrooms open to the public year-round.

On any given Saturday night in the High Country’s small town of Sparta, you’ll find a hundred or more mountain dancers having a little fun at the Alleghany Jubilee. The band of the night strikes up around 7 p.m. at the old Spartan Theater and the steel-tap bottomed shoes come out to play. Agnes and Earnest Joines redesigned the old theater to be a fun place for fellowship and enjoying the music of the hills. Don’t be surprised if someone asks you to dance – you may even learn the art of the mountain two-step. The Jubilee is an entertaining show of bluegrass music and a great opportunity to see traditional dance come to life.

For nearly 40 years, Rockingham Dragway has been the premier drag racing facility of the Carolinas. Built in 1969, the Richmond County racetrack produced two major races each year until its rebirth in 1992, when the track came into new ownership. It boasts an ongoing 37-year streak as the host of at least one major national drag racing championship and has also expanded its racing schedule and implemented a track improvement and expansion program. The dragway sits across the street from the closed Rockingham Speedway, which was also affectionately called “The Rock,” between Charlotte, Raleigh and Greensboro in one of the Carolinas’ fastest-growing regions. Many race fans travel more than 150 miles to attend a major event. You can also make the most of your visit by spending some time golfing or antiquing in the area.

Have you ever wanted to know what the first ladies’ china sets look like? You can see them all at the Presidential Culinary Museum. The building in the small town of Grover in which the museum is housed is known as The White House, which is fitting since the town is named after a president. Take a fully guided tour of the private and public collections of Chef Martin CJ Mongiello, a former executive chef to President Bill Clinton and the first family from 1993 to 1996. The tour traverses three floors of the Hambright family home and includes presidential memorabilia sent from the National Archives and several presidential foundations. You’ll also see culinary medals, fine china and recipe cards.

Soon after the foundation of Raleigh’s N.C. State University in 1889, insect collections began growing across campus. In 1952, these collections were assembled into a single resource now known as the N.C. State University Insect Museum. With nearly 1.5 million specimens, the museum has been internationally recognized for the study of insects and mites from North Carolina, the Southeastern United States and some parts of the world. The museum’s GigaPan project produced large photos of museum insect collection drawers, taking high-resolution photos and stitching them into one panorama. The NCSU Entomology Outreach Program also works closely with other educational organizations and events, promoting the study of insects in the Triangle. Small groups and individuals can access the museum by making an appointment with the Department of Entomology.

With more than 460 championships under their belts, the Golden Knights are no strangers to performing precision aerial maneuvers while falling to earth reaching speeds up to 120 miles per hour. More than 50 years after its start, the team captivates audiences at stadiums, events, air shows and other venues across the nation and around the world. The 90 soldiers who make up the Golden Knights serve with the team for three years. They are stationed at Fort Bragg and have all been trained in one of the Army’s military occupational specialties. You can catch a glimpse of the famous routines at practices held Tuesday through Thursday between 8:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. at the Laurinburg-Maxton Airport in Scotland County.

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 walk in front of the seawall between Kure Beach and Fort Fisher at low tide, you’ll come upon the only coquina outcrop on the North Carolina coast. Located a short distance from the Fort Fisher State Recreation Area, these mounds of clumped shells have hardened over the years from surface exposure. They form a small platform extending beneath Kure and Carolina beaches as well as Masonboro Island. Check the tide tables and make sure you’re on time because the mossy rocks will only be fully exposed at the lowest tide. You can even find treasures like hermit crabs or interesting shells in the cracks of the terrain. The rocks are a must-see if you’re in the area and make for a beautiful sunset scene if you time it right.

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.