This Luxury Resort Is Set to Host the Best Diwali Mela in California—Let's Go

Head to Laguna Niguel in South Orange County for an incredible spread of modern Indian food, dancing, yoga, and more.

dancing for Diwali Mela at the Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel in South Orange County
Photo courtesy of the Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel
Photo courtesy of the Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel

We have officially entered the season of celebration, a non-stop sprint of holidays, parties, festivals, and eating from Halloween and Día de los Muertos through the new year. And if you happen to be working in Hollywood, good luck getting anyone on the phone between now and the week after Sundance. Diwali is the next holiday up, falling on Sunday, November 12 this year, but if you want to spread your celebration out there’s a huge party happening this weekend, too—The Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel and Chef Sanjay Rawat are throwing their second annual Diwali festival, which includes a massive Diwali Mela on Saturday, November 4.

Last year was the first Diwali festival at the Ritz, but it was not their first foray into Indian cultural events. In March of last year, Chef Sanjay Rawat took the helm as chef de cuisine for a culinary program specifically dedicated to Indian weddings. Prompted by the success of those weddings—and spurred by the New Delhi native Rawat’s awesome cooking—leadership at the Ritz decided to throw a Diwali Mela feast and celebration. It was a hit, and this year they’ve gone even bigger.

They’re offering a whole vacation package designed around their Diwali festivities, a two night stay from Friday to Sunday. The package includes a tasting menu dinner with wine pairings at Kahani, Rawat’s new restaurant within the resort. It also gets you two tickets to their Bollywood Burn workout class, two days of yoga and meditation classes, and two tickets to the culminating celebration at the resort, their Diwali Mela.

That Mela is the weekend’s capstone event, which they’re calling the largest and most luxurious Diwali celebration in the country. There will be some 300 guests for a banquet-style dinner from Rawat and his team, and a full evening of music, traditional dance, and a group dance tutorial. The setting is stunning, on a grassy bluff overlooking the Pacific and the gorgeous South OC coastline, and the food setup is extravagant.

action station at the Ritz-Carlton Diwali Mela
Photo courtesy of the Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel

Rawat has created a massive menu with multiple stations serving more than a dozen different dishes. There’s a buffet table with his takes on classics like Aloo Puri, Chana Masala, and Butter Chicken. There will also be action stations set up for a further set of dishes like Bhel Puri, Hakka Noodles, and New Delhi-style Gol Gappa. Of course there will be whole sections for drinks like Mango Lassi and Masala Chai, and a dessert table with Jalebi, Gulab Jamun, and more.

The food is a centerpiece of the event thanks to Rawat, who has gained serious recognition for those wedding feasts. They’ve become so popular that he’s opened a modern Indian restaurant within the resort, the new Kahani. Kahani is designed to showcase Rawat’s full journey from his childhood in India through high-end global kitchens and on into life in a California beach town. That means familiar Indian classics with a modern perspective, infused with SoCal’s best produce; dishes run from Rogan Josh Short Rib served with whipped potatoes to a Saag Lobster Risotto, and there is of course a Curry Sampler to show guests the breadth of Rawat’s perspective.

Kahani has been classified as a pop-up for now, with a tentative run date through mid-December, so if you can’t make this weekend’s Diwali Mela you still have a few months to make it down to Laguna Niguel for Rawat’s standout Indian cooking.

Drive Time:

1 hour from San Diego 
1 hour 30 minutes from LA

More Things to Do in South Orange County and Laguna Niguel:

South Orange County isn’t exactly a hotspot for activities or nightlife, but it makes up for a lack of buzz with some of the most beautiful and accessible outdoor adventures in Southern California. The Laguna Ridge Trail is an easy stroll that takes you through Badlands Park and Seaview Park, winding through a neighborhood and across the spine of the local bluffs. The views of the ocean and the coastline are gorgeous. For a slightly more taxing short and steep hike that rewards you with similar views, the Valido Trail is a fun alternative.

If you want a little more structure and a little less exercise in your oceanic enjoyment, consider whale watching. Trips leave from nearby Dana Point Harbor all the time, and they’re damn proud of it—the city has a registered trademark as “The Dolphin and Whale Watching Capital of the World,” and is also the first Whale Heritage Site in the Americas, which is an honor awarded the city for its commitment to sustainable and ethical whale watching trips. You might see dolphins, Gray whales, Fin whales, Minke whales, or even Blue whales, and it’s a great way to get a view of the lovely coastline, too.

For a peaceful way to appreciate the bounty of Southern California, head to the Niguel Botanical Preserve. The 18-acre garden has some 2000 species of plants, with a focus on drought-tolerant, climate-appropriate stock. Miles of trails meander through the garden, which features beautiful views of the surrounding hills and a meditative labyrinth.

There are classic SoCal beaches nearby, with long stretches of sand and solid surf breaks like Salt Creek or Doheny. And if you’re looking to explore a little bit, there are also fantastic tide pools to be found. Try the the north side of Salt Creek, or the south end of Dana Strand Beach—and if you are experiencing any mobility challenges, Dana Strand also has a cool if slow funicular to get down to the beach.

outdoor event space at ritz-carlton, laguna niguel in south orange county
Photo courtesy of the Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel

Where to Stay in Laguna Niguel:

If you’re heading down for Diwali Mela, the obvious answer is to stay at the venue itself, the lovely, luxurious, and expensive Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel. But if a resort stay isn’t your bag, there are plenty of other options in the area.

Nearby Dana Point has the whole range of major hotel brands, a Marriot, a DoubleTree, two Best Westerns, and more. You can also head up towards Laguna Beach, a 15 minute cruise up PCH that’s totally lined with hotels at every budget level. There are tons of options, but Laguna Beach House has a nice blend of convenient location, stylish accommodations, and a reasonable price point.

huge barbecue platter from heritage barbecue in san juan capistrano
Photo by Ron De Angelis, courtesy of Heritage Barbecue

Where to Eat and Drink in South Orange County and Laguna Niguel:

Don’t miss a dinner at Kahani, of course, but there are plenty of other restaurants in the greater South OC area that are worth a visit outside of the hotel grounds, too. Head into San Juan Capistrano for some of the best barbecue in the state at Heritage Barbecue, where the Texas-style classics are outstanding but the modern inventions may be even better. Snag some Smoked Pastrami, Pork Belly Char Sui, a Brisket Taco, and House-Made Sausages—but you should probably order in advance, or be prepared for a long wait.

If you’re looking a little lighter or vegetarian-friendly, the bright and fun California-Levantine restaurant Mayfield is another great choice in San Juan Capistrano. The restaurant has all the ingredients for a lovely evening—a stylish space, a sunny disposition, and a very good natural wine list.

Dana Point Ale House is right nearby, and has a great taplist with a wide range of beers from some of Orange County’s best breweries. If you want to go straight to the source, though, GameCraft Brewing is just a short 20-minute drive inland.

For nearby coffee, any of the small local chain Bear Coast Coffee‘s three locations is a great choice. The South OC locals have been around for about a decade, roasting their own beans and making all their own syrups and sauces. But if old school coffee house ambiance is a priority, pop into JC Beans, order up a cup of French roast, and settle into an armchair near an overstuffed bookcase like it’s Seattle in the ‘90s.

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Ben Mesirow is Thrillist's LA Staff Writer, and an Echo Park native who writes TV, fiction, food, and sports. At one time or another, his writing has appeared in The LA Times, Litro, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Los Angeles Magazine, and scratched into dozens of desks at Walter Reed Middle School.