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Boca Raton urban Paddle: Backyards of the 1%

There are hundreds of miles of canals in South Florida that lend themselves to an urban paddle, many lined with upscale homes, but only a few neighborhoods can match the architecture and scenic landscaping of ultra-posh Royal Palm Yacht and Country Club in Boca Raton.

Forbes magazine once ranked Royal Palm the No. 1 most expensive gated community in America, and while no longer true, it’s still pretty classy.

Royal Palm Yacht and Country Club canal
A leisurely paddle through the Royal Palm Yacht and Country Club. (Photo by Bob Rountree)

I’ve often passed through in my fishing boat, taking a shortcut to the Boca Inlet, but have never given much more than a passing nod to the elegant McMansions that line the  waterways harboring mega-yachts in this exclusive neighborhood.

Oh sure, we gawked. But we never explored. This time, we left the boat at home in favor of kayaks for a slow crawl. 

Homes of Royal Palm Yacht and Country Club are elegant, if overstated.
Back yards of elegant homes in Royal Palm Yacht Club. (Photo by Bob Rountree)

Launch at Pioneer Park in Deerfield Beach, just east of Dixie Highway, north of Hillsboro Boulevard, and paddle down the Hillsboro Canal to the Royal Palm Yacht Club marina, where a cutoff canal will take you into a network of backyard waterways.

After exploring a few canals, exit the neighborhood near Deerfield Island Park, a spoil island once owned by Al Capone, accessible only by boat.

Beach on Deerfield Island
A pocket beach on Deerfield Island. Don’t forget the picnic lunch!

Bring a picnic lunch and go for a hike, or just lounge on one of the island’s beaches for a midday meal before continuing our urban adventure. (Pick up your picnic lunch at the Pickle Barrel on Hillsboro Boulevard for the best and biggest sub sandwiches in Deerfield Beach before you launch.)

It’s easy to spend 2-3 hours on a leisurely paddle, including a stop for lunch.

Launch from Pioneer Park in Deerfield Beach

Although designed for trailer boats, the ramps at Pioneer Park in Deerfield Beach are an ideal starting point due to proximity to Royal Palm’s canal system.

Trailered boats queue up to the ramps on weekends, so pull over to the cul-de-sac near the ice house, away from the traffic, to unstrap your kayaks (or canoe) and unload. Carry your kayaks down to the dock next to the ramps.

On a weekday, it won’t be crowded so use the ramps, but tread carefully. The ramps are slippery below the tide line.

Paddling past the Royal Palm Yacht Club marina.
Making the turn at the Royal Palm Yacht Club marina

Head straight ahead from the ramp, which curves east to the bridge under U.S. 1.  A huge marina complex will be on your right, and the Royal Palm Yacht Club will be on your left.

Paddle left around the yacht club marina into Royal Palm’s canals. From here, a series of smaller canals branch off into the neighborhoods.

These homes are awesome; the landscaping out of a magazine. You rarely see residents enjoying their tropical back yards, but you will see and hear fountains and waterfalls, fish jumping in the canals and birds in the groomed trees.

It’s quiet. A leisurely paddle past the homes of the rich and famous.

The canals are public but the properties are not. Respect their privacy and steer clear of their docks, lest you set off screeching alarms that will bring down your day.

While this is usually a trouble-free paddle, be aware that on the far side of the neighborhood is a stretch of Intracoastal Waterway that gets very busy on weekends and gets rough from boat wakes. Avoid it if you can.

It’s not so bad on weekdays, but few of these boaters know you have the right-of-way or the consequences of their wake, and they will often ignore you and barrel right past.

Within the confines of Royal Palm’s canals, there is virtually no boat traffic.

Deerfield Island Park

The docks at Deerfield Island Park
Deerfield Island Park has a small marina for boats, just off the Hillsboro Canal. (Photo by Bob Rountree)

Deerfield Island Park is a 54-acre island bordered by the Intracoastal Waterway, the Hillsboro Canal and Royal Palm Yacht Club.

There is a small marina on the south side of the island, along the Hillsboro Canal, where you can pull your kayaks and paddleboards onto the floating docks. These docks are designed for motorboats, so use care.

The island has two nature trails that traverse through a diverse community of vegetation, including a lot of non-native species that are gradually being removed and replaced. 

The half-mile Coquina Trail includes an observation platform overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway, and the three-quarter-mile Mangrove Trail has a 1,600-foot boardwalk that bridges a mangrove swamp on the west side of the island.

There are picnic tables and a small shelter, or you can just picnic on the grass near the marina.

The island also has a few small beaches, where you can just pull up your yaks and picnic. We found one beach on the north side of the island, facing Royal Palm, that was ideal. Too bad we forgot our lunch! But we pulled up on the beach anyway to stretch our legs.

When this story was updated in February 2023, Deerfield Island Park was closed for maintenance. You can still access the periphery of the island, but not the marina or the interior of the park.

Deerfield Island Park

Deerfield Island Park is open to the public from 9:30 a.m. until 5 p.m. When it’s open, a shuttle runs hourly from Sullivan Park, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. For updates and more information, call 954-357-5100.

Gangster Al Capone once owned Deerfield Island

Al Capone fishes off Palm Island in Miami
Al Capone

The island was originally part of a peninsula that extended south from Boca Raton, leading to quite a few turf wars between Palm Beach and Broward counties, Boca Raton and Deerfield Beach, over whose jurisdiction the island belongs.

But upon one thing everybody agreed – Al Capone was not welcome here.

The notorious gangster, who already owned a home on Palm Island in Miami, tried for years to build a home on the peninsula. But his neighbors in Boca Raton did not have a favorable opinion.

Capone was fought every step of the way, ordinances were passed to scuttle his quest. Capone’s bid died when he was shuttled off to prison.

The island was later cut off by a canal, but Capone’s signature remained. It became known among locals as Capone Island.

Not coincidentally, a casino was located across the Hillsboro Canal from the island in what is now Sullivan Park. The casino would later become a popular restaurant known as the Riverview, which was demolished during the 1990’s, making room for the development of Sullivan Park.

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David Kaether

Saturday 6th of June 2020

Thanks for the fine article. I am an avid kayaker who lives in Deerfield Beach. I will definitely check this area out. I plan to launch from the new kayak launch at the Hillsboro El Rio park on SW 18th St. in Boca Raton. It looks like a wonderful kayak launch site.

Jay gleitman

Wednesday 21st of September 2022

@David Kaether, ..nice park and launch, but if you have a kayak trailer. Like i do, u cannot park it there. Just wanted to let others know.

Bob Rountree

Saturday 6th of June 2020

Let me know how the new park works out. I'll add it to the story after I get your feedback.

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