Extreme dark: In search of the northern lights – from a tiny Norwegian town that sees nothing but darkness and ice for two months

Being the antithesis of a morning person, getting up before dawn should count as a heroic achievement. Indeed, staring out of my hotel window at the street-lit cityscape, I'm suffused with all the smug tranquillity of the early riser. Only then do I realise it's actually 10.15am: I've overslept by two hours and missed my appointment with Knut, my guide. Such is the slow, surreal process of acclimatising to Tromso in Norway, located 250 miles north of the Arctic Circle, where for two months from late November, the sun never rises.

During this morketiden, or "murky time", the main reason for visiting Tromso is to try to see the northern lights – try being the operative word since, as Knut explains, "Aurora is a difficult lady: she'll only come out when she feels like it." So on the first evening I find myself heading 25 minutes out of town to spend the best part of four hours gawping at the sky in chilly anticipation – and though folklore decrees that Aurora will come and snatch you if you a wave a white sheet, my efforts to improvise with some A4 paper prove in vain.

The next night I and my travelling companion venture further into the wilderness, to a mountain camp in the nearby Lyngen Alps. After some dog-sledding through the pine-strewn valley (all very Narnia-esque, barring the odd dodgy turn and faceful of snow), we retire to a traditional tepee to warm ourselves by a roaring fire and sup on reindeer soup, coffee and vodka. Finally, around midnight, Aurora arrives. She's on coy form tonight: to the naked eye, all that appear are a few ghostly wisps, although a photo reveals the inimitable luminous green particles streaking across the sky. Still, it's an alluring enough gesture to make one hope for a return journey and the full show some day.

In any case, Aurora or no Aurora, back in town there's enough spectacle to be getting on with. A lunchtime cable-car ride reveals the full beauty of the few brief hours of grey-blue twilight that pass for day. Then, as blackness descends once more, I return to ground level for a stroll around the main streets which, with their heart-shaped lights and chocolate-box clapboard houses, exude the kind of understated festive warmth that this jaded, Oxford Street-afflicted soul had all but forgotten.

More specific attractions worth checking out include the beautiful iceberg-shaped Arctic Cathedral; the Polaria Arctic Experience centre, which boasts Imax films of the polar landscape and some ever-so-cute performing seals; and its brutal flipside, the Polar Museum, where you'll find stuffed animals being variously clubbed, trapped and shot in displays extolling the region's hunting heritage.

And if you thought all that subzero darkness might encourage Tromso's inhabitants to hibernate, think again: this is the city with the most bars per capita in Norway, and even on a Wednesday night they're packed to the gills. Choice hang-outs we discovered on our crawl included the Jernbanestasjon – "The Railway Station" – decked out with train seating and compartments in an ironic reference to Tromso's lack of one; and the Bla Rock Café, a buzzing indie-kid watering hole filled with signed memorabilia from the likes of Iggy Pop and the Rolling Stones.

The locals I speak to claim that far from depressing them, the long polar nights only provide all the more incentive to keep active and busy. The winter blues, it seems, are simply not in their psychological phrase book and although initially sceptical of such assertions, after three days here I am inclined to believe them. From the student revellers blithely disregarding the cold in short skirts and T-shirts to the saxophone player ironically tootling Gershwin's "Summertime", there's a cheery stoicism everywhere I turn.

As if to confirm this, on my final afternoon I am invited to join the bunch of crazies known as the Tromso ice-swimming association for their weekly dip. At 5pm on the dot, I and 10 or so others strip to our trunks and sprint into the Arctic Ocean, roaring as we go. After the initial convulsive shock, everything goes numb and for a couple of minutes I paddle around in a state of disembodied serenity. It's a curiously uplifting end to a curiously uplifting trip: never let it be said that a holiday spent in subzero darkness can't bring some sunshine to the soul.

See visitnorway.co.uk for further information on visiting Tromso. Norwegian Air Shuttle (norwegian.com) offers direct flights from London Gatwick to Tromso. Prices start from £52 one way, excluding tax