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A road trip to North Carolina with our pandemic puppy

Sibby in the sand.Megan Lisagor Stoessell

“It feels almost normal,” I suggested to my 11-year-old son, as we walked back to our rental place in North Carolina this July, a boogie board bumping against his knees. “I know, which is weird,” Graham agreed, adding, “I guess normal is the new weird.” It sounded like a step up from the new normal, at least.

In the Outer Banks, we found it possible to mostly forget the pandemic for a week, staying in an oceanside neighborhood with nature trails and stilted houses that had names like “Making Memories” and “Castaways.” We brought our bernedoodle puppy, Sibby, along for the very long ride, and she lived her best life there, too.

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The barrier islands off the coast of North Carolina are known for welcoming dogs, and we rented in Duck, where they can sprint along the sand without a leash, or, in Sibby’s case, chase crabs that burrowed just out of reach. That makes it the perfect destination for parents with kids and a puppy on their hands this summer or fall, particularly if remote learning continues.

My husband, Todd, and I have traveled to the area since our 20s and return with his family every August. Graham and his sister, Elinor, 8, have spent much of our recent vacations begging for a dog of their own to bring to the beach. A bonus week with Sibby was our answer to canceled camps and missed time with their grandparents on the West Coast.

No doubt, it’s a long trek to the Outer Banks from Boston. “Only 434 miles to go. High five,” Elinor said, shortly after leaving home, as Sibby readjusted her position. “You make that sound so simple and quick,” Graham replied, launching a game of rock, paper, scissors, shoot. We quit counting from there.

Friends have done the drive in a day, but we decided to detour to Charlottesville, Va., to visit our alma mater and to rest for the weekend, hitting parking lots for Sibby along the way. She was easy to please, snuggled between the children, her food rolling around the back seat as her water sloshed in its collapsible bowl.

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In C’ville, we subjected Graham and Elinor to scenes from our college years and the picturesque vineyard where we married. But we really started “making memories” back on the road, thanks to a busted rearview mirror. There’s nothing like hitting an AutoZone in 98 degrees with two kids in masks and a puppy to leave you questioning your plans.

Thankfully, the Outer Banks redeemed us. That, and Todd cramming a week’s worth of groceries in the trunk in Charlottesville. We rolled into Duck around 4 p.m., swinging by Tommy’s market, having called ahead to order the cheese, meat, and milk we still needed. Chili was cooking as soon as we wiped down the weathered house.

What the rental lacked in style and had in odor, it compensated for in location. We gazed at the bright blue ocean with drinks on the deck, the water access only steps away. Sibby stationed herself by the wooden railing, barking at the parade of dogs passing by, as we waited for the sunset.

In the morning, I took a run, scooting around a poodle, a Labrador, and a golden retriever marking some territory on a sand castle. Later on her walk, Sibby had her first taste of saltwater, and then her second, and her third. The afternoon was for kids, splashing in the sea, as surfers and occasionally dolphins hovered in the distance.

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Speaking of distance, the wide beaches lent themselves to spreading out, and we sat between two families for days before chatting, as it required shouting over the crashing waves. With so much open space, we could ditch our masks and pretend life was normal. Come to think of it, the only new part was having a dog.

If you go . . .

Here are some best bets from years of traveling to the Outer Banks. In the current climate, I felt comfortable at these places, where masks and social distancing were respected, as were puppies.

Sleep here

We broke up the 11-hour drive with two nights at the Boar’s Head Resort (boarsheadresort.com) in Charlottesville, Va. Sibby enjoyed snoozing under a patio table during our meals. Williamsburg Lodge (www.colonialwilliamsburghotels.com) in the Colonial Williamsburg area is another option if you’re coming down the car park that is I-95. In Duck, we stayed in the Sanderling community, renting through Twiddy (twiddy.com). The agency texted us a keyless door code when the house was ready. Just For The Beach Rentals (justforthebeach.com) also dropped off bikes.

Eat this

We ordered groceries and restocked at Tommy’s Natural Foods Market & Wine Shop (tommysmarketobx.com) in Duck. For a bigger list, the Harris Teeter (harristeeter.com) in nearby Corolla has it covered. Coastal Cantina (coastalcantina.com) is a favorite for lunch on the boardwalk, and dogs are allowed. It’s worth reserving a table outside for dinner at The Blue Point (thebluepoint.com) in the same waterfront complex with views of the sound. Unless you’re a puppy. Then the peanut-butter treats baked at Outer Barks (outerbarks.com) are the thing.

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