Cross River has it all. There’s breathtaking tropical rain forest, relics of a colonial past, the best cuisine in the country – plus some of the most welcoming people you’re ever likely to meet.
With its fascinating history, passionate culture, top-notch cuisine and lush natural attractions, a visit to Cross River offers unique access to 23,000 square kilometers of museum property. To get the full benefit of your time here you’ll have to limit your itinerary to the most interesting sites. And there are lots of them. But then you shouldn’t be in too much of a hurry to explore, as you will soon discover that life here is not only unhurried but that your most important journey might just be a few feet, or drinks, away.
Whether it is walking the old colonial trail of Creek Town and Old Calabar with its missionary ruins or exploring natural wonders such as the Obudu mountains and the spectacular nature reserve housed within the Cross River State National Park, your adventure begins here.
European sailors as far back as the 15th century have been in constant contact with Calabar (the earliest appearance of ‘Calabar’ on paper is a Venetian account of 1517). The region eventually became an important international seaport by the 16th century. This was largely due to increasing trade ties with the main native ethnic groups, Efik, Efut, and Qua. Calabar soon gained notoriety as a major slave trading port from the late 17th to the 19th century. About 30 per cent of the estimated 2.5 million slaves taken from Africa to the New World are said to have passed through the Calabar seaport.
By the middle of the 19th century, Calabar lost its position in the African slave trade. During this period, it became a major trading port for palm-based products such as palm oil and kernels. In 1883, Portuguese control over Nigerian colonies weakened due to increased militarisation by the British forces. Calabar became part of the British regime and served as the capital city for some of the surrounding provinces from 1885 to 1893. During the early part of the 20th century, the city lost some of its commercial significance due to robust development at the nearby Port Harcourt terminus.
Prior to 1906, Calabar had served as the seat of the British colonial Niger coast and Southern Protectorate. The city has the waters of the Calabar and Great Kwa rivers including the creeks of the Cross River coursing through it, and was historically composed of a number of independent towns – primarily the Efik-dominated centres of Creek Town, Old Town, Henshaw Town, Cobham Town, and Duke Town – collectively deemed ‘Old Calabar’ by Europeans in the 17th century, until 1904 when the appellation ‘Old’ was officially dropped.
Calabar municipality and its suburbs have since grown considerably and today encompass areas occupied by the Qua and Efut, which were previously considered the hinterland of Old Calabar. The political administration of modern Calabar is divided between two local government areas: Calabar Municipality and Calabar South.
But beyond its trade and colonial history, Calabar’s true legacy lies in the unique ethnic culture that predated, and was in many ways influenced, by early European contact. From religious practices to kingship systems, many ways of life have not changed in centuries.
Today, Calabar, in contrast to its colonial, seafaring heyday, has settled into a lush, unneurotic city well-loved by Nigerians for its comfortable, open-minded culture that keeps visitors coming back.
A pastoral enclave overlooking the creeks, Creek Town is the ancestral home of the Efiks. From here, Efik influence dominated the entire spectrum of social, economic and cultural life not only in the present Cross River state but also as far into surrounding states and even to western Cameroon. Creek Town has been the land of legends, the land of the Eyos, who were people of vision and integrity, with astute business and political minds.
Take a boat ride from Calabar Marina along the river to Creek Town. While there, visit the old residency of King Eyo Honesty II, a charming one-storey prefabricated Victorian structure built in the mid-19th century.
You will also find in the town a nautical bell dedicated to King Eyo Honesty, a status gift given by early Europeans to prominent native rulers. Also in Creek Town is Mary Slessor’s residence, a Scottish Presbyterian missionary best known here for abolishing the ancient custom of killing twin babies and their mothers. Until her intervention, twin children were considered bad luck in these parts.
Creek Town Presbyterian Church
Presbyterianism is as Efik as Anglican is English. When the reigning Eyo invited the missionaries to bring gospel to his people, a small congregation in Edinburgh donated a princely sum to enable work on the church. And so the Creek Town Church was built in 1851, making it the oldest Presbyterian Church in Nigeria. The church has seen some renovation over the years but the basic gothic elements – tower and steeple, stone work, arch windows, and wood panelling – still retain a haunting quality that harks back to a lost era.
The European Cemetery
Dating back to 1870, this cemetery – called Udi Mbakara locally – was specially reserved for early European missionaries and notable local rulers in the 19th century. It became especially popular during the 1956 visit of Queen Elizabeth II, who laid a wreath in honour of Scottish missionary Mary Mitchell Slessor, who died and was buried here in 1915.
Old Residency Museum
This impressive museum documents the social, geographical and economic history of Cross River, since it was first discovered by the Portuguese. It’s set in what used to be the old residency building of the British Consul, which was prefabricated in Britain and shipped in pieces to Old Calabar where it was erected on the permanent site. A curator is on hand during opening hours to guide you on a tour.
Where Off Leopard Town Road, Duke Town
Contact Sunny Adaka (Curator)
0 803 713 4706, firstname.lastname@example.org
Hope Waddell Training Institue
Initially established as a vocational training institute by the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland in 1894, the grounds of Hope Waddell training is an intriguing example of late-Victorian architecture. It houses a brooding gothic chapel and its first school building was a prefabricated classroom block of corrugated iron sheets and Scandinavian pitch pine, built by a Glasgow firm and shipped to Calabar where it was assembled back in 1894.
Where Leopard Town Road, Duke Town
Contact Edet Inyang 0 806 402 8225,
Calabar Botanical Gardens
The Calabar Botanical Gardens was established by the Royal Botanical Gardens of Kew, London in 1893: the first of its kind in Nigeria. The old Southeastern Government converted the garden into a zoo in the early 1970s.
In 2004, the Rhoko Foundation, a UK-based NGO, and Cercopan, took over the management of the garden. Today, it offers the closest forest experience in town with an array of rainforest trees on display and on-site recreational facilities. This garden was where the Malaysian government first bought the high-grade palm seedlings that made them world leaders in palm oil production.
Where Mary Slessor Avenue
Contact Dr. Austin Ogogo 0 703 946 3361
Chief Ekpo Ekpo Bassey House
Chief Ekpo Ekpo Bassey, wealthy Efik gentry from Cobham Town, imported this building from London, erecting it in Old Calabar in 1886. Claims are that another prefab had existed here before it but was destroyed immediately after he received the title Eba Nyamkpe. Though in need of renovation, the building is well worth a visit.
Where 19 Boko Street
Contact Charles Etim Bassey, 0 702 930 1898
Brass Chair Of Great Duke Ephriam IV
The Efik King, Great Duke Ephriam IV received a 148-pound engraved brass chair as a gift from the Mayor of Liverpool, Sir John Tobin, in 1826. The chair remains in the home of the king’s ancestor.
Where Off Ekeng Ewa Street
Contact Charles Etim Bassey, 0 702 930 1898
Dining & Nightlife
The Calabar scene comes alive at night with an array of culinary adventures for the nightcrawler seeking dining and dancing until the early hours. For a city as synonymous with food as it is with fun, it comes as no surprise that its denizens knock out late. And like any city with a teeming young population, club nights tends to start relatively early in the week, from Wednesdays to Sundays. Benefiting from an active university (University Of Calabar), and scores of business travellers who shuttle in mainly from Lagos, Port Harcourt and Abuja, Calabar has traditionally attracted a cosmopolitan crowd eager to absorb as much of the legendary flavour of the city as is possible within a weekend.
From local delicacies like edikang ikong soup and goat head pepper soup to late evening steak, pork, fish plantain and chicken barbecues on every major street from IBB Road to Marian Road, a visit to Calabar isn’t complete without savouring one of its many clubs, bars, and restaurants.
For the tastiest barbecues in Calabar, visit the outdoor street vendors at Calabar Suya on the Hausa section of town (Sabo or Bogobiri) every night for grilled beef and mutton. You can also sample night fries, a Calabar snack combining potato and yam chips, bean cake, plantain and fried mackerel.
Where Opposite 7 Slaughter Road, Off Mary Slessor Avenue, Calabar
Contact Alhaji Hassan Tukur, 0 705 130 3985
Atimbo Huts & Bars
Thirsty for nature’s finest wine straight from the tapper’s raffia? Atimbo Huts & Bars offers an abundance of fresh palm wine served with bushmeat. The row of simple huts is set along the road connecting Nigeria with Cameroon with a backdrop of lush vegetation and a jungle symphony. The huts have no electricity, so arrive just before sunset for an authentic and incredibly atmospheric experience.
Where Atimbo Road,Calabar, Cross River
Contact Jude Ejinaka, 0 803 887 8736
Explore Calabar’s restaurants, such as Le Chateau Hotel and Channel View Hotel, for African and International cuisine. Most of the better restaurants are along MCC and Marian roads. Further afield, Tinapa Lakeside Hotel serves high-quality cuisine in a cozy and comfortable environment.
Tinapa Lakeside Restaurant
This full-service restaurant and bar overlooks the Calabar River. Meals are reasonably priced and there’s a choice of buffet and menu meals three times a day. The bar is on the ground floor adjoining a guest waiting area. Enjoy great drinks and cocktails with ambient music.
Where Tinapa Lakeside Hotel, Tinapa Free Trade Zone, Calabar
Contact 0 803 417 5376, 0 805 462 1550, tinapalakesidehotel.com
The Mirage, Calabar
There’s the option of two restaurants and a bar at this well-appointed boutique hotel. The Pinnacle Restaurant serves breakfast and lunch with the option of ethnic Nigerian and international menus. The Royal Chinese Restaurant offers Oriental cuisine in a clean environment and Pub 360, the in-house bar with ethnic African décor, is a great watering hole to relax and talk shop. It opens from 5pm daily and offers all sorts of spirits and cocktails.
Where Plot 230 State Housing Estate, MCC Road, Calabar
Contact 0 87 236293-4, email@example.com, themiragecalabar.com
The most popular nightspots in the city are Genny’s (an open-air bistro and hangout), Pinnacle Hotel Night club, Mayfair Lounge (Channel View Hotel), and the very cool Jasper 131 in the heart of Marian road.
This thumping bar is frequented by Calabar’s young, fabulous and fashionable. Enjoy the lounge-style aesthetics, mostly Afrobeats music and all the spirits and cocktails you can down. Ladies’ night and the karaoke room pull in the crowds. Club nights are Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 9pm.
Where 131 Marian Road
Contact 0 803 387 0230
Mayfair Lounge, Channel View Hotel
One of the more popular night spots in the city, the club features a big dance floor, divans, upbeat ambience and a well-stocked bar. And the music is infectious. Opens from Wednesday to Sunday, 9pm.
Where 27 MCC Road
Contact 0 803.974.2031, 0 803.974.2044
A combination of open-air diner and nightspot, Genny’s is the most visible barometer of the pulse of Calabar nightlife. It has its own parking space and opens every day of the week, winding down at about 4am every morning. It’s the best place to start your night on the town with friends before you go
Where 106 Ndidem Usang Iso Road
Contact 0 805 959 7737
Call Of The Wild
With wild, untamed rainforest, scenic mountains, waterfalls, and an abundance of exotic plant and animal species, the Cross River region easily qualifies as not only Nigeria’s most important biodiversity zone but also one of five environmentally compelling hotspots on the continent. From the Obudu Plateau to the Agbokim waterfalls to the rugged beauty of the Afi jungle wilderness, Cross River offers a bounty of natural scenery as far as the eye can see.
The big news is that over 60 per cent of Nigeria’s endangered plant and animal species are found within these forests and nowhere else in Nigeria. Put another way, more than half of the remaining 10 per cent of Nigeria’s tropical lowland rainforest is here. Two-thirds of the entire state is inhabited by the most precious, endangered species of forest elephants, Sclater’s guenon, red-eared guenon, drill monkeys, the red-capped mangabey, and the Cross River gorilla. It is no wonder the state has earned its status as the greenest state in Nigeria; it’s an unmissable destination for conservationists and nature lovers.
Sustainable ecotourism has remained a top priority of the state. Unfortunately entire industries – from basic agriculture to poaching and logging interests – have exploited natural resources, threatening to upset the balance of a fragile ecosystem. As of last count, 85 tree species, over 1,000 butterfly species, and 22 species of primates – particularly the Cross River gorilla – the most severely threatened of any gorilla subspecies in the world – are at risk.
However, through a number of government, NGO, and community arrangements, the state has established a variety of protected areas managed in unique ways. The federal Cross River National Park, the Cross River State Forestry Commission’s Afi Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary, the Mbe Mountain community area, and the mostly privately owned Obudu Plateau, all protect significant biodiversity.
There is also the Calabar-Cross River Estuaries and Mangrove Forest Reserve, created in 2005 to protect about 250 km2 of mangrove habitat. Although this area is relatively small, as of now it is the only protected mangrove area in Nigeria and provides hope for many species. Conserving Cross River’s biodiversity has been an initiative of the Nigerian Conservation Foundation, Wildlife Conservation Society, Pandrillus, Cercopan, and other partners for a number of years – which comes as a relief to nature lovers.
Whether for a weekend’s clubbing or a month of volunteering with conservation efforts (pandrillus.org) Cross River State allows you to choose your own adventure. Discover culinary delights, historical journeys through a colonial past, dancing with Calabar’s club kids or serene stays in the mountains.
Arik Air operate daily flights to Calabar from Lagos and Abuja. See Arikair.com for more details.