Ski Europe! It's exciting. It's challenging. It's trendy.

And guess what? It's even affordable -- if you know where to go.

In high-priced Austria, that means avoiding the glitzy resorts like Innsbruck and Kitzbuhel, and heading for the places where the Europeans themselves ski -- like Zell am See.

Zell am See is a beautiful four-season resort rising from the shores of Zell Lake, just down the road from its more famous neighbor, Kitzbuhel. The town is a European favorite, particularly among the Scandinavians and Dutch, who motor down on weekends to enjoy Zell am See's easygoing atmosphere and the wonderful mountain vistas.

Zell am See is an unpretentious resort, where the main attraction remains the skiing and associated pleasures. This is the real alpine Austria, not a hackneyed imitation. The town traces its history to 740, when monks from Salzburg -- just 50 miles away -- formed a settlement beneath the Schmitten Hohe mountain.

Today the Schmitten Hohe is the main ski area, offering the largest concentration of the resort's 53 cable cars, chairlifts and ski lifts. The Schmittenhohenbahn, a short walk or free bus ride from the post office in the center of town, quickly carries you to the Schmitten Hohe summit. The peak is only 6,447 feet, so the first-time visitor remains free of the shortness of breath that all too often frustrates sea-level-dwelling Americans. From the top, you can see the entire 75-mile trail system and the small town of Zell am See below.

Even beginners can conquer the entire mountain. A series of well-marked, sloping trails offers novices runs all the way to the bottom.

For the expert there are challenging, uncrowded slopes cut through mountain timber. On one clear March morning, I found myself alone on one of these -- a steeply sloping course where Zell am See's world-class giant slaloms are run.

The alpine tranquillity was so impressive that I forgot to concentrate on my skiing -- if only for a few memorable moments.

For sunny morning skiing, try the Sonnalm cable car, which connects with a chairlift to the Sonnkogel, where numerous intermediate runs await.

When the weather forecast is good, sun seekers and adventurers alike head for the Kitzsteinhorn glacier, reached from nearby Kaprun, a 10-minute bus ride from the post office at Zell am See.

The runs at the top of this exposed, timber-free plateau are mostly intermediate, but after a snowfall there can be powder enough to tempt any expert. The view from the 9,935-foot summit at Gletscherbahn is extraordinary.

Sampling Austria's hearty fare is a required part of a skiing experience at Zell am See. I became particularly partial to one restaurant near Mittelstation, on the main mountain, that was buried up to its roof in snow. You can eat lunch cafeteria-style and take your plate to a table outdoors, or you can dine at the restaurant proper, where a waiter sporting a pen made from an elk's antlers took my order for a delicious steak.

For families with small children, Maiskogelbahn in Kaprun and the Ronachkopf lift in Thumersbach offer plenty of unhurried, uncrowded skiing for beginners. And if you like to cross-country ski, there are 217 miles of trails -- and a snow-covered lake surrounded by mountain views.

Skiing isn't the only draw at Zell am See. After several days on the slopes, I discovered the pleasures of the community sports center, with its outdoor ice rink, indoor pool, health bar and sauna complex.

The sauna, with its own defined rituals and procedures, is a community experience in Zell am See. The complex boasts two sauna rooms, a cold shower, a tub filled with ice-cold water, an outdoor cooling yard and a whirlpool.

Not knowing where to go first, I attached myself to an informal group and headed toward the main sauna. There we sat ... and sat ... and sat. One man treated the group to a macho display of towel snapping, but it took all my energy just to I sit stone still in the heat.

Fifteen minutes later, our group exited en masse, showered, took a dunk in the ice water and watched the steam rise from our bodies in the outdoor yard.

Then we all retired to the sunroom, complete with lounges, German magazines and a juice bar. After 20 minutes or so -- time enough for a short nap -- we returned to the sauna for Round Two.

The entire enterprise lasted about three hours. My body, after a few days of hard skiing, felt as loose as the Tin Man's after oiling.

I left wondering how I could get my own town fathers to spring for a similar set-up. Geoffrey Aronson, a former ski patrolman, is a freelance writer.


GETTING THERE: Zell am See is on a major rail line running directly from Vienna, 240 miles distant, and Salzburg, 50 miles away. The four-hour journey from Vienna costs $61 first-class, $42 second-class, one way.

WHERE TO STAY: Zell am See has a variety of accommodations, ranging from the celebrated Hotel Salzburger Hof to modest pensions. I stayed at the Hotel Eichenhof, perched on a steep slope five minutes' walk from the town center, where a single room with private bath runs about $40 per night (breakfast and dinner included). Breakfast was a selection of breads, jams, yogurt and cereal, and dinners were plentiful and hearty. Each room looks out on the mountain range on the other side of Zell LakeSKI INFORMATION: Ski passes are good on all of the area's 53 lifts. Six-day lift ticket prices range from $154 (high season) to $128 (low season) for adults, and from $100 to $83 for children. Ski school classes are conducted in four-hour sessions. A six-day package is available for about $110.INFORMATION:

Austrian National Tourist Office, 500 Fifth Ave., New York, N.Y. 10110, 212-944-6880.

Zell am See Tourist Office, Kurverwaltung, Brucker Bundesstrasse, A-5700 Zell am See, Austria.